Veteran producer Craig Plestis—who helped launch America’s Got Talent, The Biggest Loser and Deal or No Deal, among other reality hits, when he ran alternative programming at NBC—shares with TV Formats his journey with The Masked Singer and weighs in on how social media helped turn the quirky Asian format into one of FOX’s top-rated shows this season.
Described by fans and detractors alike as “bonkers,” “bizarre” and “wacky,” FOX’s The Masked Singer is arguably the buzziest new entry in the reality entertainment space in years. Although it’s not really new, having been driving conversation and ratings in Korea for years as The King of Masked Singer, while a recent Thai adaptation scored an International Emmy nomination. Originated by MBC in Korea, the show was brought to America by Plestis, whose production company, Smart Dog Media, is housed at Endemol Shine North America.
The finale of The Masked Singer airs on FOX this Wednesday.
TV FORMATS: I understand you discovered the show while out to dinner?
PLESTIS: I was at dinner with my wife and daughter. We went out to have Thai food. I still think to this day that if we had decided to have Indian or Mexican or Italian, there would be no Masked Singer right now! So we’re at a restaurant and my back is to the TV. My daughter said, Dad, look at this, there is the craziest thing on. I turned around and all the diners in this small restaurant were watching the TV screen. I saw a kangaroo in black pleather singing a pop song. At that moment I said, Oh my gosh, I love this! It was bizarre. It was flypaper. It was in a foreign language and you didn’t know what was going on, and it was still working. I found out that it was a hit format in Korea, it was a hit show in Thailand. And no one had the [U.S.] rights. It was so bizarre and so strange, I think people looked at it and said, that’s a crazy show, no one is going to buy that here. I got the rights fairly quickly, with the help of Steve Wohl at Paradigm. I called Rob Wade at FOX on a Friday night and said, I need to come in Monday. I was so passionate about it. I worked the whole weekend. I was pulling things off YouTube. I cut a reel. I pitched it and he loved it. FOX was the right home at the right time for this brand. Also, Rob Wade did Dancing with the Stars. Who thought ballroom dancing would work in the States? That was a gamble that paid off.
TV FORMATS: Did you have to make adjustments to the format to make it more suitable for an American audience?
PLESTIS: We did. The Korean format has a smaller burst of people and one winner. And they carry over a King of Masked Singer every few episodes. I liked the idea of following a character, not eliminating one so quickly as the Korean format does. The outfits, first of all, are really expensive. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on an outfit and then it’s done! Also, I like the idea of figuring out who it is. There’s a scientist who did a video about why The Masked Singer works. It’s all about the idea of figuring out the mystery and uncovering that mystery and then seeing the results. Weeks go by and you get that pent-up energy, I need to figure it out! When the singer is revealed, it releases a huge amount of endorphins and you get a thrill that you were right in your calculations. This show follows that simple dynamic. And there’s the spectacle.
TV FORMATS: How did you go about finding your masked singers?
PLESTIS: It’s not as easy as you would think! The first season for formats is always difficult. And you have to wear a 100-pound outfit, a mask, and no one is going to know who you are! What worked in our favor is we cut a really good sizzle using the formats around the world. The people who said yes got it. They understood the idea of the mystery. They all had a reason to do it. They wanted to sing out of their genre or prove they could actually sing. And of course, it helps if you can say, look at the track record; it’s a huge hit in Korea, it’s a huge hit in Thailand. These celebrities are savvy. They took a look at the data in the same way the network did and said, OK, I’ll take a gamble as well. Our panel and hosts also took a chance on a fresh format.
TV FORMATS: How do you maintain the secrecy on set?
PLESTIS: We have a really big legal team! The NDAs are crazy. There’s a huge security task force. We have a small group of producers and a handful [of executives] at the network who know. We kept the circle of knowledge small. And when the unmasking happens, we ask the limited number of people in the audience to keep it quiet.
TV FORMATS: Viewers are heading to Twitter to discuss their guesses of who the participants are. Do you think that the audience built from week to week because new viewers were discovering the show on Twitter?
PLESTIS: This is a unique phenomenon that will change the course of what we do with TV shows and formats for a long time. It’s a new way to engage the viewer. Even just a year ago it was easy to be passive and sit there and watch a performance and say if it’s good or bad. It’s not like that anymore. What we’ve done with the guessing game of who is under the mask has opened up a whole dialog and engagement level, online as well as on the couch. Families are watching and having debates at home. You have to do that for viewers, especially on a broadcast level. How do you get them to engage? Luckily we figured it out.
TV FORMATS: What are the major lessons from season one that you will bring to season two?
PLESTIS: We’re going to have a brand-new set of characters. You’ll see even more bizarre outfits. And even more bizarre choreography and performances. And we’ll be keeping that guessing game alive in season two. Do we give as many clues out as we did in season one? We don’t want to make it so difficult that no one guesses it. If you watch a clue package hard enough, you can figure it out. If you want to be an armchair detective, I want to give you all the tools to figure out who is underneath the mask. They all have to sing live; we’ll keep that part of the dynamic. And every episode you’ll see them sing without the mask on. I love that. And we’ll keep it fun. We live in such a divisive world right now. With everything going on in the news, it’s nice to take an hour out of your life to sit with your family and watch a show together, have fun, yell at the TV screen. This is the one show everyone can watch together.
TV FORMATS: Are you looking for other undiscovered gems on the international market?
PLESTIS: There are a lot of good formats and a lot of bad formats. Sometimes it’s not always 100 percent. Sometimes there’s 10 percent of a good idea. I bought America’s Got Talent for NBC when I was head of reality there. Simon Cowell had made a pilot for ITV, which passed on it. Then he pitched it at FOX; they passed on it. I went to his house, watched the pilot and said, I am buying this. One, I wanted to do a variety series, and two, he figured out the formula—it was the Xs, a play on The Gong Show. It was simple. You look for that—the magic ingredient that no one has done before or has been reinvented in a fresh way. I have a few already that I’m working on from Asia.