Distributors discuss the biggest issues at play in the format business today.
There’s a reason why FOX’s The Masked Singer is currently the most talked-about format on the planet. And it has nothing to do with its surreal conceit, bonkers costumes or the fact that it comes from South Korea, arguably the hottest TV territory du jour.
According to Rob Clark, Fremantle’s director of global entertainment, it’s because it’s utterly, ludicrously frivolous. “I’ve got a theory,” he says. “In times of uncertainty, people don’t want serious. So in 2019, we’ve got Trump and Brexit and a downturn in China and revolution in Venezuela and Germany heading into economic headwinds and, lo and behold, what are people watching? Masked celebrities dressed as llamas.”
Clark is, in fact, making a serious point about the key issues impacting the global formats industry as we head into MIPTV, notably the legacy broadcasters’ relationship with risk, the industry’s current conviction that the Next Big Thing will emerge from a non-traditional format territory—probably South Korea—and, indeed, whether the Next Big Thing is even still a thing in today’s fractured, fragmented marketplace.
The success of The Masked Singer, which started life as King of Mask Singer on Korean channel MBC in 2015, nods to all these trends. The U.S. iteration rolled out in January on FOX and was watched by more than 9 million mesmerized Americans, making it the highest-rated unscripted debut on any U.S. network in seven years.
“Hats off to FOX for The Masked Singer—which is in itself a sign the linear broadcasters realize they need to innovate and take more risks to compete with the SVODs,” says Clark, observing that, even a couple of years ago, such a left-field format would never have been ordered. “But I’m a bit exasperated with everybody hailing Korea as the new land of milk and honey. Korea’s certainly a very creative place, but the fact remains that, while hit formats can come from anywhere, the likelihood is that they’ll come from where they usually come from.”
This chimes with Harry Gamsu, VP of non-scripted at Red Arrow Studios International, who says that, in terms of volume, “the usual suspects”—the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and the Nordic territories—continue to top the list of the company’s new format launches. But he adds that the success of The Masked Singer should serve as a warning to all distributors “not to ignore the emerging players.” He adds, “The formats game is now a mature business and those countries that used to focus on importing IP are now well-versed in the practice of creating original content.”
Of note, Red Arrow is working with leading Japanese media group Nippon TV on the brand-new game show Beat the Rooms.
This uptick in local format generation has also resulted in a boom in the number of format prospectors mining the world for inspiration. One effect of this, says Lisa Perrin, the CEO of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group, is that news of a format with potential star power travels far, fast. “Good ideas are the worst-kept secrets,” she adds.
While Perrin agrees with Fremantle’s Clark that discoveries like The Masked Singer are rare, she says that Endemol Shine’s global network of 120 operating companies is constantly trawling for fresh ideas. “I think we’ll see a lot more formats from Asia because this region is not only incredibly innovative but the audience there also consumes a lot of television,” she predicts. “And Latin America is also a very exciting place to be at the moment.”
Global Agency’s founder and CEO, Izzet Pinto, has also found Latin America to be a rich source of new ideas. Israel, India and, more recently, France, are also proving to be creative hotspots for the Turkish distributor, which is rolling out Upgrade from Israel and Auction Queens from France at MIPTV. “Actually, the most surprising place I’ve found a format is in myself,” Pinto adds, describing how a music video inspired him to devise Keep Your Light Shining in 2015. Local versions of the singing-talent format have now been made in Turkey, Germany, Ukraine, China, Thailand, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.
Rabbit Films is looking to position Finland as a key hub of innovative ideas, arriving at MIPTV with a slate that includes Couples’ Party, which Jonathan Tuovinen, COO and head of international, describes as a “saucy studio show.” He notes, “Strengthening existing partnerships and creating new ones in Europe and the U.S. are always part of our mission. But we’ll also be making our way towards Asia and Australia with our catalog as we’re operating with a global mindset.”
Pinto likens the chances of finding yourself in possession of a hit format to winning the lottery. Interestingly, he claims that drama—Global Agency’s other major content pillar—is a much easier sell. “One in four of our dramas goes on to do well for us, which is a 25-percent hit rate. But with formats, it’s a lot tougher. Every year, we get pitched about 250 formats, but only about ten of those will be strong enough to add to our catalog. Out of those ten, perhaps two will go on to sell, which means you’ve got a 1-percent shot at success. But even though the chances are low, if one of those two formats hits the jackpot, it’s a game-changer and will deliver revenue for years.”
There’s been much talk about the continued domination of the mega-format franchises, and the lack of new ideas strong enough to challenge their iron grip on global schedules. Where you stand on the question of mega-brands crowding out innovation appears to be linked to whether you are fortunate enough to own one. Those who do claim that “big, successful formats enable channels to launch and build innovative new programming around them,” to quote Red Arrow’s Gamsu. Those who don’t say that the mega-formats’ stranglehold on prime time makes it harder to cut through with new ideas—particularly in a linear broadcast market that remains risk-reticent, if not downright risk-averse.
Fremantle’s Clark is in the former camp, dismissing the argument as “nonsense put about by producers who don’t have a mega-format.” Like Gamsu, he believes that, far from stifling innovation, tentpole franchises attract huge audiences to networks, fertilizing the ground for “new green shoots” of creativity. “In any industry, success breeds success,” he adds. With a mega-brand portfolio that includes Idol, The X Factor and Got Talent, not to mention format pioneers Family Feud and The Price Is Right, it’s hard to disagree.
Over at Endemol Shine—itself no slouch on the mega-format front, with Big Brother, MasterChef, Deal or No Deal and The Wall in its vault—Perrin makes the point that, as long as there are eager audiences for the big old brands, broadcasters will keep serving them up.
Perrin has spotted signs that the linear broadcasters are becoming “braver and more innovative” as they engage in a battle for eyeballs with the SVODs. But Sarah Tong, director of sales at Hat Trick International, says risk-aversion is still alive and well. “Something that’s a bit different is a tough sell when competing against mega-brand formats such as The X Factor and MasterChef, which continue to be remade worldwide year after year.”
Another sign of risk-aversion, Tong adds, is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to persuade buyers to take a punt on a format that hasn’t rated in another territory. “Often a broadcaster will say they love a show, but if it doesn’t fit exactly into the slot criteria they’re looking for, then they’re not going to take a risk on it,” she says. Broadcasters will also wait to see how a format has performed in another market before deciding whether to commit. Tong references Rich House Poor House, which didn’t take off as a format until it had proved itself to be a ratings winner on both Channel 5 in the U.K. and SBS6 in the Netherlands. The show, in which families from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum trade places, has now been licensed in Belgium, Germany and Poland.
But Andrew Sime, the VP of formats at Banijay Rights, thinks a bit of risk-aversion is not a bad thing for the formats industry, since it serves to reinforce the value of their product. “We can help to reduce the risk by offering broadcasters a catalog of proven hits and the production expertise to execute them successfully and on budget,” he points out.
If the legacy broadcasters remain cautious, however, the SVOD platforms are far more willing to take risks, facilitated by deep pockets, an insatiable appetite for content and, significantly, freedom from scheduling and timeslot constraints. Sime notes that, while it’s still early days in terms of global SVOD commissions, demand is growing for formats across the major platforms as they seek to replicate their successes in scripted. Banijay Group–owned Bunim/Murray signed a multi-territory deal with Facebook Watch for its classic format The Real World.
“We shouldn’t be referring to [the streamers] like they are all the same,” adds Michael Iskas, president of The Story Lab Global, a division of Dentsu Aegis Network. “Different digital platforms are looking for different things—different formats, different lengths, different genres. We have started building relationships and have developed some ideas with the social platforms.”
Of note, The Story Lab UK and youngest Media collaborated on Date or Dump for the social network UNILAD. No Sleep No Fomo, meanwhile, was adapted for Asian OTT platform Viu.
“We are building relationships on the back of the needs that the streamers have in terms of their audiences,” Iskas notes.
Hat Trick’s Tong and Red Arrow’s Gamsu both cite the impact of the streamers on the traditional licensing models. Gamsu says more value is being placed on rights and exclusivity as the market becomes ever more crowded and competitive, while Tong observes that the emergence of the VOD platforms has resulted in linear channels becoming less keen to share or window rights, on the understandable grounds that they don’t want to share their audiences.
But Gamsu reflects the general view when he says that the SVOD giants’ move into unscripted ultimately means more format buyers. Fremantle’s Clark calls it “nothing but good news—it’s a major market for us, and a market that didn’t exist five years ago.” Endemol Shine’s Perrin is also upbeat: “I think the SVODs riding into town and getting into unscripted and local-language content is super exciting. Yes, it’s challenging, because we have to engage with them in a different way, but we shouldn’t be frightened. For all of us in scripted and non-scripted, it’s a massive opportunity.”
Meanwhile, opinion is divided on the value of production hubs, which reached their zenith in the heyday of Wipeout and Fort Boyard. Clark says he’s never been a fan, other than for big, physical formats that require minimal emotional investment from the studio audience. “If the audience doesn’t understand the language, know the host and celebrities, or appreciate the eccentricities of the local contestants, it kills the show,” he adds.
But Red Arrow’s Gamsu says that the hub approach is being revisited as broadcasters look for smarter ways to stage the big visual productions that are back in fashion. “We’re seeing more ideas where a hub model could be the solution to bring grander, more expensive shows to broadcasters of all sizes,” he adds. This resonates with Banijay’s Sime, who says hubs can reduce costs and simplify the production process for big-ticket formats with expensive sets, such as Survivor and Fort Boyard. “But for mid-range titles, a hub can be a false economy,” he cautions. “For all our productions, we work closely with the original producers and the new licensees to ensure we find the best solution.”
All, however, agree that partnerships are the bedrock of the formats industry, pivotal to creating shows that deliver both creatively and commercially. “Everybody needs to have genuine creative buy-in and be prepared to share the risk of a project,” says Red Arrow’s Gamsu of the symbiotic relationship between broadcasters, producers and distributors. “This also means that each partner, importantly, is able to enjoy the commercial upside.”
Sime reports that Banijay partnered with Korea’s SBS to create and develop the interactive music format Fan Wars. He believes the marriage of SBS’s local cultural knowledge and creativity and Banijay’s international development expertise has been a significant factor in the show’s success. Now, Banijay’s global production and distribution network is being leveraged to roll the format out.
So where next for the formats industry? Live events? Real-time interactivity? A step-changing, earth-shaking Next Big Thing—or lots of next little things, to cater to the varied tastes of lots of little audiences? Endemol Shine’s Perrin thinks all bets are off. “The Next Big Thing could be a Marie Kondo-type show on Netflix or something classic like The Voice that catches fire and blazes its way around the world. I’ll be very happy if the Next Big Thing looks like All Together Now, which was our fastest-traveling format of 2018.” From Endemol Shine-owned Remarkable Television in the U.K., the singing-talent format launched on BBC One last year and, at the last count, had sold into 12 territories, including Brazil and Australia.
“Daring creative ideas,” is the mantra at The Story Lab, Iskas says. “Strong creative ideas that bring something new to the audiences, to the broadcasters, the streamers and the market. We always try to find simple and single-minded creative ideas that deliver pure entertainment but also have a visual DNA that sets them apart from the competition. Game of Clones, for example, has such a strong visual DNA. It’s been selling across the world.”
In today’s disrupted world, where the old-school entertainment brands are competing against any number of distractions, the Next Big Format feels increasingly like yesterday’s fantasy. “There’s such a variety of linear and digital platforms looking for such a diverse range of programming that I can’t see there being a future for one Next Big Thing,” says Hat Trick’s Tong. “What works for digital may not for linear and vice versa, plus there are so many niche channels.”
Red Arrow’s Gamsu takes a similar view. “The days of a new format traveling to 20-plus countries within a year of launch are long gone. The formats business has matured and it’s a slower build these days. The turnover of new formats is higher than ever, so getting broadcasters to stick with and grow a new show can be a challenge.”
For Red Arrow, the way forward is a mix of innovation and evolution, Gamsu adds. “We are always looking at how we can take a successful genre and move it forward with a different take or twist.”
Banijay’s Sime believes that, when it comes to live or topical entertainment, nothing beats the power and punch of television. “Big formats like Survivor can still bring countries to a standstill,” he says. While Sime concedes that smash hits are rarer these days, the demand for “great new formats” remains as strong as ever. One contender from the Banijay stable is Brainpool’s Catch!, a sports event format—inspired by the classic children’s game—that is launching at MIPTV. “The games at the heart of Catch! are universally appealing and recognizable, and the show can be scaled up or down as required,” Sime says.
Scalability is also on Rob Clark’s mind, as he muses on the definition of the Next Big Thing, “When we talk about the Next Big Thing, I assume we mean a successful show that travels to a number of territories? My trouble with that is that the impetus behind a new format should never be world domination. It should be about making the right show for your audience. Then, if your audience likes it and you’ve followed certain rules—scalability, returnability, universality and content that’s transferable and promotable—you may have a successful format on your hands. So I don’t encourage people to think in terms of the Next Big Thing. We just concentrate on making the best shows we can.”
Pictured: Global Agency’s Auction Queens.