Case Study of Ex on the Beach

Laura Burrell, the global head of formats at Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), tells TV Formats about the dating and relationship format Ex on the Beach.

That recurring nightmare of an ex popping up unexpectedly while you’re sharing a romantically charged moment with your new flame becomes a reality on MTV’s dating and relationship format Ex on the Beach. According to Laura Burrell, the global head of formats at Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), the series has a “fantastic visual hook, which is the exes coming out of the sea to confront their former significant others in a dramatic style.”

Burrell adds, “That’s become the signature piece of the show, and that in itself has propelled it to being in 13 territories.” Another reason behind the format’s international success is that it taps into a universal experience. “Everyone has an ex, and most people at some point in their lives experience that fear of an ex turning up at an inappropriate time in their lives when they’re embarking on a new romance.”

The format has been on the air across Europe and in Brazil, and it recently debuted on MTV in the U.S. The social experiment sees good-looking singles searching for romance on a summer holiday. One by one, each is confronted by a former lover, and everyone—flames old and new—must live under the same roof.

The concept for Ex on the Beach was brought to MTV by Whizz Kid Entertainment back in 2013. The series was commissioned for MTV International, and MTV in the U.K. aired the first season in the spring of 2014. “The plan was always to see how that series would perform on the different MTV channels around the world before looking at the possibility of localizing,” explains Burrell.

“It wasn’t necessarily clear on paper that it would be such a successful format, but as soon as it went to air, it seemed to become evident that it would be a very strong format,” she adds. Indeed, season one rated as the highest-ever new program launch for MTV UK, and season nine is set to premiere on August 15 at 10 p.m.

Sweden was the first country to adapt Ex on the Beach, in 2015, through a format license to Discovery. “The format was perfect for the Swedish audience,” Burrell notes. “The Nordic territories are quite similar to U.K. audiences; they love reality shows and they embrace a lot of the same types of formats that the U.K. does. It was a natural fit.”

“We sold the Swedish version into Norway as a finished tape, then on the back of the success with that version, the Norwegian broadcaster decided to commission the format to do their own,” she says. “The Russian series has also been sold to the Baltics.”

Since airing in Sweden, Ex on the Beach “really has gone quite wide,” Burrell says. “It has been a mixture between licensing to other territories and individual MTV channels choosing to adapt the format.” For example, MTV in Holland, Poland, Brazil, Mexico, Italy and the U.S. signed on for local versions of the show, while other broadcasters in countries such as Denmark, Finland, Hungary and France have licensed the format as well.

For Burrell, the U.S. version, which premiered on MTV earlier this year, is significant because it marks the first time MTV in the U.S. has commissioned a format from another MTV channel. The cast of the U.S. adaptation features singletons who have been on series such as The Challenge, Are You the One?, and The Bachelor and its various spin-offs.

While casting celebrities is one way to go, the format works equally well with a group of everyday singles. Burrell notes that partners are encouraged to cast either celebrities or civilians, depending on what works best for their audience.

Ex on the Beach does require an intensive casting process because you’ve got to have time to research the past relationships,” she cautions. “Casting is an area for which we work very closely with the different local teams to get it right. We’ve become experts in doing it, of course, because we have so many seasons in the U.K., and there are often overlapping exes and relationships among the cast members. That’s what you want because it helps create the drama; the more you realize that they’ve got overlapping romantic histories, the more drama it creates.”

Other changes that some territories have opted for involve the tone of the program. “In the French version, the emphasis has changed to be less on confrontation,” she explains. “That was partly because the format was being adapted for an access-prime-time slot. The original version fits in prime on MTV, so in the case of the French adaptation, we had to allow those elements to be toned down for that access-prime slot, but that just shows how flexible the format is.”

Indeed, not only does Ex on the Beach work in different time slots but it also works in varying structures. “We’ve had weekly versions, we’ve had a daily strip, we’ve had everything in between.” And although there is not a production hub, Burrell says the format is still affordable and scalable. “We do have quite a few examples where we’ve done productions back-to-back using the same villa or the same location. Particularly for MTV channels, that’s been a great way to get more localized versions.”

As the format has been remade in different countries, there are some aspects that remain the same in every version, including “the Tablet of Terror, as it is called,” Burrell says. Ex on the Beach is one of the “first formats to utilize iPhone or iPad technology as a substitute for a host. It drives the narrative, and the Tablet of Terror features on all of the versions.” The Tablet of Terror doles out tasks such as daring the participants to send out raunchy tweets and asking them to answer intimate questions. There is also a narrator or voiceover in all of the versions, which is encouraged to be tongue-in-cheek.

Ex on the Beach is an example of a format that only MTV would take the risk to commission in the first place,” Burrell says. “We have a history of risk-taking and that makes it stand out in a crowd.”

New versions of Ex on the Beach are launching later this year in Denmark, Norway and Italy, and Burrell is enthusiastic about the future of the franchise. “We’re looking to expand the reach of the format wherever possible.”