Fit for TV

Producers and distributors weigh in on the wave of high-stakes, physical endurance competitions in the formats market.

In an increasingly on-demand age, broadcasters clamoring to attract audiences to real-time TV know they can reliably bet on two things: sports and competition shows. The crop of physical endurance-style formats making their way across the globe combine these elements to create TV spectacles that showcase the impressive feats that humans are capable of.

Unlike a straightforward sporting event, these competition formats allow viewers a more intimate look at the contestants taking part, making the connection to these peak performers all the more palpable. “The audience wants to relate to emotions, characters, backgrounds and values of the cast and their surroundings,” says Can Okan, founder and CEO of Inter Medya. “With a show like Exathlon, the format brings not only these important elements but also the element of sport. And this combination has a structure that appeals to the whole family—like a new version of sports that creates local heroes who the audience connect with in their hearts and feel the competition and struggle that they are in.”

At MIPTV, Banijay Rights introduced Catch!, which puts a grueling, high-energy spin on the classic children’s game of tag. “What’s so special about Catch! is that it’s a formatted sports event in many ways,” says Andrew Sime, the com­pany’s VP of formats. “It’s like watching a sport that you are very familiar with; there’s no difference from watching football or tennis. It’s a fast-paced competition with rules and very fit athletes taking part, as well as some celebrities.”

Catch! has launched in Germany on SAT.1 to much success. “It’s event television that gives people something to talk about with their colleagues when they go to work the next day,” says Sime.

Part of the draw, he adds, is the aspect of endurance. “In Catch!, it’s about physical prowess and stamina. In Survivor, you see a different type of endurance, which is people who are stuck in one inhospitable landscape for weeks on end.” Both have audience appeal, Sime says. “To watch people who are doing such physically intense feats with such skill is particularly compelling.”

Spurring the trend is the fact that health and physical well-being are, by and large, a greater focus in the overall cultural consciousness these days. “People have more awareness about exercise and different ways of approaching physical activities,” says Andrew Zein, senior VP of creative, format development and sales at Warner Bros. International TV Production. “There are more 5K events, 10K events, Tough Mudders. Health and exercise are societal topics.”

He adds: “Previously, where there were physical endurance-style competitions like World’s Strongest Man, the general public could never quite understand the levels of fitness or how people attained it. The new breed of shows, in some ways, is slightly closer to what people can understand or aspire to, plus the general public’s understanding of what it takes to climb something or carry something or pull yourself up something means that they can [grasp] the show better.”

Warner Bros.’ Million Dollar Mile, which aired in the U.S. on CBS, is set in a real-world urban environment and competitors are meant to represent a broad cross section. “What we are striving for is authenticity,” Zein says.

To achieve that authenticity and relatability, casting is a crucial element. And, unlike with some of the physical competition series that were popular in the past, today’s audiences aren’t tuning in to laugh at someone getting knocked on their butt; they want to see top-flight contenders who all have a fair shot at winning.

“Having equality in their health status is a must and a serious point to pay attention to,” says Umay Ayaz, head of acquisitions at Global Agency, which represents formats such as Pick’n Run, Battle of the Couples and Tahiti Quest.

For Endemol Shine Group, home to competitions such as The Island, The Bridge and Big Bounce Battle, establishing a basis of care for the contestants is standard practice, says Lisa Perrin, CEO of creative networks. “We look very carefully at whether someone could complete the task, mentally and physically. Nobody is going to get [cast] if they can’t survive on an island, if they are physically or mentally not able to cope with the reality of what that brings. All of our teams cast with really rigorous checklists in mind. We make sure that people can stand up to the task ahead of them.”

As the parkour courses in Inter Medya’s Exathlon are designed to test all aspects of an athlete’s abilities, “our contestants should have a combination of speed, swimming, jumping, balance, flexibility, strength, dexterity, coordination, muscle memory and sporting intelligence,” says Okan. “They have to perform at their highest level consistently, as this is the only way to be the champion.”

For a format as advanced as Survivor, which is going to have its 40th season in the U.S. in 2020, the casting has had to evolve along with the show. “The contestants are now so well-versed in Survivor gameplay and history, they know every trick in the book,” says Sime. “So, as producers, you’re constantly trying to stay one step ahead of them. That informs your casting. You want a mix of people who are slightly more naïve, slightly wilier and some more experienced.”

The casting target differs for a show like SAS: Who Dares Wins, in which ex-Special Forces soldiers put recruits through a re-creation of the SAS selection process. “The mix you’re looking for there is about different backgrounds, different physical abilities and challenging preconceptions so that the people you meet in episode one change in front of your eyes as the series goes on,” Sime explains.

With most of these physical-style competitions, location is key. Some are played out on large-scale sets strewn with obstacles, while others send contestants to far-flung locales with challenging elements all their own. As both of those possibilities can be costly, producers often look to the production-hub model to amortize the expenses.

“We have one production set up in Fiji for Survivor, and over the course of the year, that plays home to the French production, German production, Swedish production—the top-tier productions that can afford to go there, film one series at a time and then move on to the next one,” Sime explains. “We have a second hub in the Philippines, and what they do there is much more about trying to find economies of scale. There are three productions normally running in parallel. For example, they’ll set up the games in the morning, and one country will go play those games, then in the afternoon, a second country will play those games. There are economies of scale that you can find.”

Banijay Rights is evaluating the potential of a centralized production for Catch!, as it’s still early days on the format. “A hub needs to follow the demand; it can’t create the demand,” cautions Sime. “You want to make sure that it solves problems and doesn’t cause them.”

The key, he says, is to help producers at any budget be able to make versions of the show, “as long as the end product is at the quality that we and the viewers expect it to be.”

Perrin says that Endemol Shine has been “forward-thinking” in its hub initiatives, going back to the days of Fear Factor and Wipeout. With The Island, for example, “We were aware that not every country has a Channel 4 budget to play with, so we scouted a number of islands where we could film back-to-back without exhausting one island’s resources. As you can imagine, there are only so many coconuts and they take a long time to grow! So, we managed to get a couple of islands nearby each other, and that meant that we could film back-to-back and bring the price down for some countries.”

Exathlon is produced at a hub, which currently extends over 350,000 square meters in the Dominican Republic. “It is essential to produce a show like Exathlon at a specific location where we have the ability to improve and innovate new parkours as well as form an international competition platform for multiple territories,” says Inter Medya’s Okan. “This means that players from one particular country not only compete with each other, but they also get to compete with those from other territories. These international competitions add another dynamic to the format.”

Global Agency’s Ayaz says that hubs can be helpful in making the production process easier as well, since mistakes can be avoided by using an established framework already in place. “On the other hand, it reduces the authenticity and localization,” she adds.

Warner Bros.’ Zein also expresses some concerns about using a hub model. “Hubs are really tough to pull off! If you have a big entertainment show, [a live] audience is a crucial factor. No one yet has really been able to nail the multiple-version hub in front of an entertainment audience.

“The next route, which we went for Game of Games and Million Dollar Mile, is to create the big-ticket items, which in this case are the obstacles,” he continues. “We built those centrally and we then make those available to the local versions around the world. That then means that you can offer broadcasters a competitive price, it’s got the production values that they would want and that you would want, and you also get some certainty on the execution. From there, finding a good physical location is relatively straightforward.”

A challenge, Zein says, is to ensure that there’s enough variety in the gameplay that it doesn’t become repetitive. Looking ahead, he believes that the physical-style formats that can balance humor, entertainment and proper competition are the ones that will rise to the top.

“We all want entertainment to work in prime time, especially up against drama,” he says. “These shows have an immediacy to them. It’s in everybody’s interest that we find shows that work for the audience in the entertainment genre and in an affordable price bracket.”