BBC Studios’ Sumi Connock


When the Covid-19 pandemic first began to sweep the world in early 2020, the global media industry was quick on its feet to adjust to the needs of the people it caters to and the demands of a changing market. BBC Studios, with its format-rich catalog, was among the companies prepared to supply the content and that managed to adapt to the times with new and innovative concepts. Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Studios, talks to TV Formats Weekly about the trends that have emerged in the format industry over the last couple of years, the prize of having compelling game shows on its slate and finding the next breakout hit.

***Image***TV FORMATS: What is the overall state of the global format industry at present? What are some trends you’re witnessing?
CONNOCK: It has been an unusual couple of years, and everyone has had to adapt in their own ways. Broadcasters were more risk-averse and turned toward the bigger global brands, reboots of heritage formats and easier-to-produce quiz and game shows to fill their schedules at the height of Covid-19. It is challenging to develop, produce and launch a new format at the best of times, never mind under the threat of a global pandemic—so it’s not surprising that broadcasters took this approach. On the plus side, there have been new players in the market bringing in huge successes like The Masked Singer, which is good for the format business as a whole. After all, creative competition can only be a good thing to ensure we’re continuing to surprise and entertain the audiences on a global scale.

In unscripted, family co-viewing is still a big theme, so familiar brands like Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) and The Great Bake Off continue to perform incredibly well. Local versions of DWTS were on-air in 24 countries in 2020-21 (no mean feat during Covid). Twelve of those have been on-air for ten-plus years. The Great Bake Off continues to launch in new markets, most recently in Japan for Amazon Prime Video. The Australian version of The Great Bake Off premiered as the number one show on Foxtel (excluding news) in the overnight ratings. So, there’s still a huge appetite for those well-loved global brands.

The big uptake in heritage game shows and quizzes during the pandemic has definitely paved the way for new and innovative game-show formats coming to the fore—less so in the traditional Q&A genre, though, as audiences want a new twist on their games.

And after an extended period in our homes, we are also seeing an increased interest in purposeful factual-entertainment formats that are both outward- and inward-looking. Whether they involve nature, the environment and the great outdoors or the world of wellness, self-help and that desire to be a better version of ourselves, we’re seeing a lot of green shoots appearing in this area.

On the scripted side, which has seen incredible growth over the past two years, there is definitely a bigger appetite for comedy formats—reflecting the audience’s need for uplifting content after a prolonged and difficult period of uncertainty. We’ve seen this with the success of our comedy formats in the U.S., where the local version of Ghosts had a superb launch on CBS, becoming the number two comedy of 2021 across all broadcast/cable, produced by CBS Studios in association with Lionsgate Television and BBC Studios’ Los Angeles production arm. In Korea, Uncle has become a huge success, ranking number one in its Saturday/Sunday 9 p.m. prime-time slot and is TV Chosun’s second-biggest show in their TV drama history (metropolitan area). [There are also] Welcome to Flatch, the U.S. adaptation of This Country on FOX, produced by Lionsgate, BBC Studios’ Los Angeles production arm and FOX Entertainment, and the French adaptation of The Wrong Mans on Disney+, with BBC Studios France co-producing with Calt Studio.

TV FORMATS: How has BBC Studios adapted to meet the needs of the evolving market?
CONNOCK: We were quick to identify which of our formats could be produced under a Covid-restrictive environment—including The Weakest Link; Walk on the Wildside, which was relaunched as When Nature Calls with Dame Helen Mirren hosting for ABC in the U.S.; and A Question of Sport, which launched in Greece and Slovakia and was a great way to bring sports fans their weekly hit of sporting action at a time when there were no live sports events at all. We also worked quickly to share production knowledge and Covid-producing protocols across our global network, as they evolved, in order to keep our big brands on air, which we achieved incredibly successfully.

We have leaned into the rise in demand for scripted formats from broadcasters who recognize the benefit of reduced development times, combined with the proven success of stories and characters that have been created by some of the best writers in the business. Our world-class dramas have enjoyed particular success in Asia with The World of the Married (Doctor Foster), which became the highest-rated cable drama of all time in South Korea, and in India, Criminal Justice was in the top five dramas of the year across all platforms in 2020 and is now in its third season. And a local version of Luther [that premiered] on Disney+ Hotstar in India, with Bollywood superstar Ajay Devgn playing lead character Rudra.

There also remains strong appetite in EMEA, too, as Doctor Foster has found local versions in France, Russia and Turkey—the latter also producing local versions of Mistresses and The Split and was recently announced to become the first international market to license the format for Happy Valley. So we’re delighted with our scripted formats success story, particularly in Turkey and South Korea—two countries better known for exporting, rather than importing dramas.

TV FORMATS: What has made game shows such an ideal format for fresh content amid the pandemic?
CONNOCK: Game shows have worked well during the pandemic both in terms of heritage titles and brand-new formats. With the heritage titles, broadcasters have the safety net of a title with a proven track record that can be instantly refreshed by bringing in new talent to host. Casting Jane Lynch on The Weakest Link in the U.S. and Romesh Ranganathan on the U.K. version delighted established fans but also brought a brand-new audience to this iconic game show.

But the real strength of the game show is its ability to be turned around extremely quickly, in volume and cost-effectively (with multiple records a day) from commission to screen. They also don’t necessarily require an audience and can be scaled up and down in terms of prize money, set and lighting design, etc., and with a show like The Weakest Link, everyone is naturally socially distanced as part of the set design, which is rather fortuitous when there’s a two-meter rule at play! I also think the beauty of the game show is that usually anyone and everyone can play along, regardless of age. At a time when audiences were stuck at home, it provided content that could be enjoyed by the whole family together, and this renewed success opened the door to fresh new game shows being developed.

TV FORMATS: How has the pandemic helped to spur on the development of new and innovative game-show formats?
CONNOCK: As whole families came back together to view game shows and quizzes, broadcasters and platforms were reminded of their ability to draw large audiences across multiple demographics. And unlike other genres, as I mentioned previously, the added benefit is that a number of episodes can be produced and brought to screen relatively quickly. The natural next question for those broadcasters was, how do they keep audiences coming back for more? This, coupled with creatives having the time to dedicate to developing new ideas during this period, has absolutely led to some innovative new takes on quiz and game shows.

We have some exciting new formats of our own coming to the market. The 1% Club [launched] on ITV in the U.K. this spring and has already been licensed to France and Israel. It’s a unique, compelling and extremely entertaining game show from Magnum Media that asks whether you’re smart enough to earn yourself a place in the 1-percent Club: an elite group of people who can honestly say that they’re smarter than 99 percent of the population. The questions aren’t about what you learned at school but about how your brain works—so everyone’s on a level playing field, no matter their age or their background.

Another is Moneybags from youngest Media, which is the first format from the Channel 4 Global Format Fund to be recommissioned for a second season. It’s a high-stakes quiz show that invites contestants to win a fortune by literally grabbing hold of it! It was also the first daily game show in the U.K. that had a massive £1 million ($1.26 million) up for grabs—so we’re really excited that this will be returning for a second series this year.

TV FORMATS: What makes game shows ideal for family viewing? How do they engage viewers of all ages and meet the demand of the co-viewing audiences?
CONNOCK: Great co-family viewing relies on audience participation, so the best quiz or game shows are those that require zero specialist knowledge or provide you with enough options that everyone can play along, regardless of their academic ability. This ensures that every generation of the household has as good a chance as whomever they’re sitting next to on the sofa.

It’s not news to anyone that the guessing-game format has been huge over the past couple of years and is a great vehicle when it comes to engaging viewers across all age groups. We’re delighted that our guessing-game format This is MY House has been recommissioned in the U.K. for an extended ten-episode second series, and we’ve also agreed on our first international format license for the series to air this spring in the Netherlands on SBS6. What’s great about this format is that it’s not just a game show; it’s the perfect combination of snooping around people’s houses, celebrities playing along in the studio and a huge helping of humor—so there are a number of reasons to watch, providing something for everyone as they sit back, relax and try to identify exactly who is the real homeowner.

TV FORMATS: What can you tell us about Surprize Fund and how it came together? What gives it its appeal for a global audience?
CONNOCK: Surprize Fund is airing on SBS6 in the Netherlands. It’s a brand-new game show where one very lucky but completely unsuspecting contestant has absolutely no idea that they’re about to become the star of their very own show. When the contestant enters the studio, they’re surprised by not only the host of the show but also a panel of 15 of their closest friends and family members who have secretly nominated them to take part. Earlier in the day, the panel have answered a series of questions to create a Surprize Fund, and now our hero has to correctly answer those same questions to win the money. But there’s a twist—with each incorrect answer, our hero must choose three of their loved ones to eliminate AND lose the money each of them brought to the Surprize Fund.

Its appeal is three-fold: there’s obviously the surprise at the top, which is completely unique when it comes to a game show; it’s packed full of warmth and heart that comes from the story behind why the hero of the show has been nominated by their friends and family; and there’s a great mix of humor and jeopardy—humor from some of the amusing answers the friends and family have provided and jeopardy in terms of how much they have contributed to the Surprize Fund and whether or not our hero can correctly identify who has earned the most/least amount of money in order to hold onto as much of it as possible.

TV FORMATS: As you look ahead to the next 12 to 24 months, what are some challenges and opportunities on the horizon for BBC Studios in the format space?
CONNOCK: In terms of challenges, it’s continuing to look for those next big, broad, breakthrough hits that will bring in the younger audiences, whilst still appealing to the broader, mainstream viewers [and] having the ability to meet the demand for some of those trends we are seeing coming through, in particular, purposeful factual entertainment.

We will continue to grow our scripted business, including those regions that have traditionally been importers rather than exporters, and we will build on our success in Asia with a local version of Guilt coming in India, as well as Doctor Foster in the Philippines. Scripted comedy will continue to be a big opportunity for us with the German version of Miranda set to air on ZDF Neo this year, as well as a French version of The Wrong Mans, co-produced with Calt Studio for Disney+.

And finally, we need to respond to the varying local needs in our production bases. But I’m confident that both our in-house production and our indie partners have a really strong, creative pipeline which will deliver some fantastic formats to suit all our local and global demands over the next 12 months.