BBC Worldwide’s Kate Phillips

Kate Phillips-BBC WW-516Kate Phillips has seen the format business from all angles: first as a producer, then as a development executive for BBC Entertainment and BBC Worldwide and then as a commissioner, when she was channel executive for BBC One and BBC Three. Today, as creative director of formats at BBC Worldwide, she oversees a catalogue of more than 160 titles, including the unscripted shows Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing, The Great British Bake Off and You’re Back in the Room, and the scripted series Luther and The Office. Having a great idea is a start, but properly adapting a format to a broadcaster’s needs and budget is critically important, Phillips tells TV Formats.

TV FORMATS: What must a format have to be successfully replicated in more than one country?
PHILLIPS: All formats are different, but I think at their heart they have a really strong USP, a unique selling point. Without a doubt, every format you see on television will have been done before, so it has to have a new twist. And at its heart it has to have something very clever and real that doesn’t feel crowbarred in there but feels quite natural. When the format goes abroad, there is the packaging that surrounds it that we give to the different countries. They use it as their basis, but then they play around with beats. They bring to the forefront the elements that work for them and push back the ones that don’t. But good formats will always have that unique twist at the heart. The basic concept should be clear and simple; you should be able to sell it in a sentence.

TV FORMATS: Tell us about some of your best-selling formats.
PHILLIPS: The Great British Bake Off is fascinating to me. It was created for BBC Two by Anna Beattie [joint creative director] at Love Productions. It is a show about people baking in a tent, and over the years it has grown and grown in popularity. That is another important thing in a format: sometimes great formats are the ones that the audience feels they discover, that they own and get behind. The Great British Bake Off is a simple format with a lot of heart that was beautifully made by Love Productions. It launched in the U.K. when the economy was going through a tough time. Broadly speaking, when economies are buoyant, crueler formats come to the forefront. At the end of the last century and in the beginning of this one, there was Big Brother, The Weakest Link—tough formats. Then when times aren’t good, people want comforting formats, celebratory things, and that’s what Bake Off is. It celebrates the ordinary person doing extraordinary things and growing in talent.

Whenever you see the show in another country you know it’s Bake Off. All versions seem to have the tent and the bunting, but with the help of our producers at BBC Worldwide, [broadcasters] make it their own format. What we see throughout the world are shows that have the Bake Off ingredients, but they bring a few extra spices to the mix. For example, in Germany, they had [a bachelor party challenge] and made cakes with busts and beer kegs! In Turkey, all the judges and competitors dance at the beginning of the show. In Denmark, in one season, the person who lost had to jump in a lake. In Italy, they had an episode in which people had to bake a cake for their loved ones. Then their loved ones surprised them, and they all burst into tears, and it was very emotive! The show started a trend for feel-good formats in which members of the public do amazing things. You’re not laughing at them as in formats from previous times; you’re laughing with them and rooting for them.

We also have You’re Back in the Room from Tuesday’s Child, which is a slapstick variety show, a genre that has always been popular. But You’re Back in the Room has a twist: the contestants are hypnotized. Many people believe the hypnotism is fake, but the format that Karen Smith [managing director at Tuesday’s Child] and her team came up with proves the contestants aren’t faking it, because the triggers given to them by the hypnotist stop them from winning money. So the argument is that they wouldn’t be doing this unless they couldn’t help themselves, because they want to get the significant prize. The show launched last year in the U.K. and we’ve already seen versions in the Netherlands and France, and we just finished filming in Australia. FOX in America is in production with eight episodes. The show is coming from a very good place, and it’s growing just how we want it to grow. And audiences seem to be loving it.

TV FORMATS: Are scripted formats more difficult to get right, and if so, why?
PHILLIPS: It’s very hard [to get it right] with drama because it comes from a very complicated creative process. A drama often takes many years to get on screen. The writers often have many drafts of the script, and different directors come to the project. When you are making [a drama] abroad there are a lot of stakeholders who are very worried about how it’s remade. But I also think you have to allow it to be adapted. Luther [about a police detective] is a very big drama in the U.K. It was successfully remade in Russia, although the [lead] character [is somewhat] different—he used to work with wolves and has a special empathy with animals that helps him do his job. They brought a very different take and did it beautifully. It totally worked for the Russian market.

But drama is always difficult to recreate, as is comedy because comic sensibilities are very different in different countries. I often get it wrong; often a show I think will sell does not, and then a show that maybe I personally don’t find funny is a rip-roaring hit worldwide.

TV FORMATS: At MIPCOM you announced that you are relaunching The Office.
PHILLIPS: It’s been remade in nine territories already and has done very good business in places like Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Israel. Now we’ve got options in Spain, Finland and Brazil as well. Part of the reason [we relaunched it] is that we have all the new scripts from NBC. The Office in the U.K. had a short run, but NBC did multiple seasons, so now we have [additional] scripts we can sell. And that’s often a problem with comedy in the U.K., they do short runs and people want multiple scripts. I really think that The Office will appeal to the Latin American market. They have quite a dry, witty sense of humor and I think it would really work. It’s interesting, when we did Bake Off in Brazil last year, I couldn’t picture it working in Brazil because it’s so different from the English countryside. But actually the elements at the heart of Bake Off absolutely translated into the Brazilian market, and I thought they did a really good job with it.

TV FORMATS: Isn’t it fascinating to see what works and what doesn’t?
PHILLIPS: Yes, it is. At the moment we’re doing Dancing with the Stars in Colombia for RCN. When they told me they were going to do 55 episodes over 11 weeks, it blew me away, because I thought, How can you make that many? It’s such an exhausting show to make because there is so much to it. RCN is stripping it over 11 weeks, 55 episodes, and it’s going great guns! They have the first transgender competitor on it, which is brilliant.

We have a creative exchange in the U.K., [that allows] people who make formats to come together and swap ideas about how they [produced a certain format] and to discuss the different twists they brought to it. It’s one thing to sell a format, but it’s another to keep it on the air, so having that creative exchange of ideas about how to keep it popular and how to keep it at the top of its game is really important. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get the production team from the Colombian version [of Dancing with the Stars ] over because I would be fascinated to hear how they did it. I think all the other makers of the show will drop their jaws when I say, Yes, they just did 55 episodes over 11 weeks!

TV FORMATS: There is a lot of drama on the air right now. Is that negatively impacting unscripted? Or are buyers looking for unscripted because there is so much drama?
PHILLIPS: There is a lot of drama out there at the moment, and I do feel there will come a time when there is too much. Personally, as a viewer, I can’t keep up with it all. My Sky+ box is in overdrive! There is only so much time. [Starting a new show is] almost like having a new boyfriend—can I commit to you? Can I commit to this series? Because they are asking a lot of you. Often it’s a 22-episode series, a long run. The thing about drama is that it’s expensive. And every time there is a great new Netflix series, or an amazing new War & Peace, which BBC Worldwide is currently distributing, the budgets go up and up, and the bar goes up and up. These series are great to have, but they are unaffordable for so many [broadcasters]. So there will always be a place for unscripted because it is relatively cost-effective television. Another sign of a good format is that it can be adapted and made cheaper in another territory. For example, something like Bake Off has quite a high budget in the U.K., but in Turkey it’s being stripped for over 200 episodes and it’s done as a daytime show. There are broadcasters who are crying out for what I call “sweet-spot” formats—low cost, high volume. That’s what broadcasters really need to fill their schedules. If it’s a good format and the beats are there and the USP is at its heart, a cheaper version does not mean a lesser version. It actually means that the program makers have had to be more clever to make it work within that budget. I’m always in awe of people who can do that.

TV FORMATS: Given your background as a programming executive, are you able to relate to the different needs of your broadcast clients because you’ve been in their shoes?
PHILLIPS: Absolutely! I’ve been in television for 20 years now. I was a program maker for years, I’ve run my own formats company and I’ve been at channels helping commission shows—I worked at BBC One and BBC Three. I’ve seen the business from all sides, so I absolutely know that when most people pitch a format to a channel, [the controller is thinking] We haven’t got the slots for this, and actually we’re wary of taking on a new show. So going into that pitch, you have to preempt all of those hurdles and think like the controller. What are the problems on this channel? What are the problems that need solving and how can we help solve them? A format gives a channel controller a certain amount of reassurance [because] it has worked in another market. But just because it’s worked in one market does not mean it will work in another, and that’s why you’ve got to work at adapting it. You can’t just go in very arrogantly and say, This is our format, do you want it? You have to think about that country, about the channel’s needs, [the other content] on that channel and how the format can work. That is so important. It amazes me that some people don’t do that when they come into meetings.

Soon I think we’ll see a huge rise in co-development deals in the format industry. Long gone is, Here’s the format, make it. We have to work hard to co-develop it for the different territories and make sure that it really works for them, particularly in the Asian market. I went to China last year, and it just blew my mind how differently they make shows. We can’t just make a format [as it is], a lot of work has to go into adapting it for that market.