Format Execs Weigh in on State of the Industry at NATPE Budapest

BBC Studios’ Sumi Connock, Banijay Rights’ Andrew Sime, Viacom International Studios’ Laura Burrell and A+E Networks’ Crispin Clover took part in a NATPE Budapest panel moderated by World Screen’s Kristin Brzoznowski to discuss the state of the format business and how best to navigate the challenges and opportunities in the current marketplace.

The session kicked off with the panelists each sharing their view of the overall health of the format business at present. “We are still in a good place,” said Clover, director of international formats and acquisitions at A+E Networks. “We have a strategy of having more formats, [but they are] in fewer territories. We consider success now five, six or seven territories. I think the days of the juggernaut formats, unless they’re already established, are gone.”

“There was a time where you needed to get ten or 12 licenses in order to get into the top ten format sales of the year, but now it’s more like five or six in order to get into the biggest-selling formats,” added Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Studios. “Format adaptations are actually up year on year, but I think it’s a mixture of heritage shows coming back and also new formats. We’ve seen both of our [biggest heritage] titles go back into the top ten this year, so I don’t know if that says something about risk-averse broadcasters.”

“The other thing is the arrival of all the on-demand platforms mushrooming across the world; that’s really changed the landscape,” added Laura Burrell, head of formats at Viacom International Studios. “Everyone has had to kind of pull their socks up a bit. It’s great! It means new opportunities, certainly for us at Viacom. A lot of our content suits on-demand platforms because it’s tailored to niche audiences, like youth or kids or comedy. We’re seeing it as a time of opportunity, and it’s exciting.”

“We’ve seen a real broadening of what people want,” said Andrew Sime, VP of formats at Banijay Rights. “We’re fortunate to have some very strong international brands. Whereas a couple of years ago there was a focus on what your top new formats were every market, what is particularly valuable about a market like this is that we’ve been able to come and talk more leisurely with clients about their specific needs, and it’s not that focused on the brand-new stuff. It’s about what’s right for the platform or channel. That might well be a format that’s ten years old or that was originally made for digital. We’re having to raise our game and broaden our offering to clients.”

In regard to what’s working best in today’s format landscape, Burrell said that the genres that Viacom is traditionally known for, reality and dating, are still performing well, highlighting the success of Ex on the Beach in multiple territories around the world. “We’re seeing an emergence of a new trend, certainly in the 16-to-34 age group, for formats that play around with diversity, question identity and what’s real versus what’s fake in a world inundated with fake news.” She pointed to True Love or True Lies, in which fake couples are weeded out from the real ones. “The level of social engagement [on that show] was huge, as everyone was trying to guess. I think we will see more formats in that space.”

BBC Studios’ Connock noted that factual entertainment is traveling well at the moment. “Partly because it’s more cost-effective than the big shiny-floor shows, but also they launch slightly more under the radar, so there’s not as much expectation for it to be an overnight hit.” She added that there’s a particularly strong appetite currently for “factual entertainment with a purpose,” as younger audiences seek out realness and authenticity. She highlighted the series One Hot Summer, which puts together diverse groups of young people on a holiday adventure.

“Branding is particularly important,” added Banijay’s Sime. “Broadcasters want shows that are visually very striking and easily identifiable. With so many channels now, they want shows that quickly stand out when a viewer stumbles upon them. They want the branding to be extendable. So, there’s a big focus now on live events and ancillary.” He mentioned that broadcasters are also making use of a show’s back catalog to very closely associate the brand with their channel in a given territory. “With something like Wife Swap, they might want the local version, but they also maybe want the American versions or the classic versions, to really own the whole brand.”

A+E Networks’ Clover agreed with Connock that factual entertainment with a purpose is important. He pointed to Bride & Prejudice and Seven Year Switch, “both relationship-based, both entertaining, but both have some grit as well and resolving relationships at the end.” Clover also highlighted the series Alone, which is on its sixth season in the U.S. and has been adapted in both Denmark and Norway. “It’s an example of a format that is so simple in its production and what is involved in the show,” as it follows ten contestants who are dropped in a remote area and film themselves as they try to survive to be the last one standing. “As a broadcaster, you have to be quite daring to commission something like that, because, on paper, not a lot is happening: there are no challenges, no setups, no set pieces and no filming—you’re relying on your contestants to do that. But the beauty is the simplicity of the show.”

Regarding the demand for large-scale formats, Banijay Rights has continued to see success with Survivor, both in terms of finding new markets and seeing recommissions in territories where it’s been on for many years. “It’s something we’re also able to scale down for smaller broadcasters,” Sime added. “We have a hub set up in the Philippines. That’s working really well, allowing people to share resources with up to three productions at a time.”

The company also recently launched a new large-scale game show, Catch, on SAT.1 in Germany. Sime noted that the format is close to landing a deal with a broadcaster in Eastern Europe, “and we’re working closely with them to scale it down a bit and make it more easily adaptable. It’s a big format, but where the creators have done us a favor is that if you look at the set, the components aren’t particularly big or involved; it’s quite easily replicable.”

“The key is the adaptability and, as the distributor, allowing the territories to adapt it and scale it up or down as necessary,” BBC Studios’ Connock chimed in. She noted how that strategy has worked well for Dancing with the Stars in various territories. “There’s nowhere near the same budget in say Ukraine or Poland as there is for the U.K. or U.S. shows. But we just did our Dancing with the Stars creative exchange, and the ones that blew us away were Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. [It was impressive] what they are doing with marketing, with a lower budget but using social media really well. They were standout territories in terms of innovation and doing something creatively on smaller budgets.”

“Having a format that’s broad enough to be adapted is the key,” added Viacom’s Burrell. “You can have something that’s really large scale, but if it’s got a unique piece of DNA to it, you can make changes.” She gave as an example Stranded With a Million Dollars, which aired on MTV with a large-scale approach. When Viacom Latin America adapted the concept, they changed it from the original ten one-hour weekly episodes to 95 episodes stripped daily, and along the way added in new challenges to the show and an elimination stage, “but they always kept true to the heart of the format.”

Many of the panelists said they are actively mining their respective companies’ back catalogs to rediscover hidden gems. Connock highlighted BBC Studios’ The Week the Women Went as one that’s now particularly timely, given the demand for factual entertainment with a purpose and fueled by the #MeToo campaign.

Sime cited the recommissioning of long-running hits, including Psychic Challenge and Wife Swap, in Central and Eastern Europe. “We’ve got brands that have really built themselves into the culture and continue to perform. The [challenge] now is to try to take those long-running brands and almost reverse-engineer the success.”

The Viacom catalog is home to “one of the oldest examples of heritage IP coming back,” Burrell said, highlighting the return of The Real World. Facebook Watch recently brought back the show, which originally aired on MTV, with three international versions: the U.S., Mexico and Thailand. She sees the potential for other back-catalog shows to make their way to new platforms as well.

And as these new digital platforms ramp up their commissioning, linear broadcasters have been looking to live entertainment and interactivity as a way to gather audiences around the TV set. “The thing about live is that it drives the conversation,” said BBC Studios’ Connock. It has the watercooler effect of people wanting to discuss together what happened on the show the night before, but also the ability for the audience to dictate the narrative with elements such as voting. “The interactivity has got to be relevant, and it needs to be used to engage the audiences,” she added.

“Live and interactivity are very important to us,” said A+E Networks’ Clover, highlighting Live PD on A&E in the U.S. “It’s been a phenomenal success. But there has to be a reason for the show being live. With Live PD, it’s 40 cameras across the U.S. all feeding into one gallery from eight cities.” Clover added that it’s been challenging to get international versions made, for legal reasons: “You can get away with a lot more in the U.S. than you can in other territories! But we’re working on it, and we have the technology to make it work.”

In scouting for new format concepts, Clover said that A+E Networks is “happy to start from paper,” and added, “when you are pitching to us, forget our channels. You’re not pitching to HISTORY or A&E or Lifetime specifically. You’re pitching to me to get a format in the catalog that we can then nurture and develop and distribute.”

BBC Studios is also open to paper pitches, Connock said. “We have a paper-to-pitch fund, which allows us to work with new partners that we haven’t worked with before…. It’s all about helping producers get their project over the line, so it’s about coming to us at the very early stages of development so that we can help make something happen.” BBC Studios has also been working with channels to pick up formats and recently took on shows from Ireland’s RTÉ and TV3.

“Viacom has a long and proud tradition of commissioning risky concepts,” said Burrell. “Our doors are definitely open, particularly for any ideas that you think, I’ve got this idea but I can’t imagine it on a mainstream channel. Come to Viacom! We’re also really open to co-developing ideas, co-producing ideas.”

Sime pointed out that some of Banijay Rights’ strongest formats are from third parties. “As a distributor, it’s kind of hard for us to take paper formats and successfully pitch them because it’s transferring the risk to the buyer and we find that that’s not particularly successful. We can work with paper formats centrally as a production group. We have a production presence in most major territories.”

Looking ahead, A+E Networks’ Clover said he is keeping an eye on Israel for new concepts. Connock said BBC Studios is “still looking for the next big shiny-floor show, but it’s been interesting to see what’s been going on in the U.S. They’ve been launching such big shows with huge talent attached, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a guaranteed winner. We almost managed to get through [the session] without mentioning The Masked Singer, but if you look at that show, it bucked the trend. They went for B-list celebrities; not big names. It’s all about the creativity and the confidence to create those exciting new formats from every angle—the channel, the producer, the marketing, the whole package—that’s going to get us the next big hit.”

Sime noted that more content is being consumed nowadays than ever before. “I’m optimistic about the future. Recently, we’ve done clever deals with broadcasters. When we did season two of Survivor in Hungary, RTL made sure that they also acquired the rights to their previous versions of the show from ’03 and ’04 and put them on a secondary channel. That’s a really clever way of owning the brand.”

“I’d agree that the future is bright,” said Viacom’s Burrell. “There’s lots of opportunity for local content. For us, the emergence of online platforms has been absolutely key. Some regions are more advanced than others in that respect in terms of what they can afford to spend on local programming, but you can see a pattern starting to emerge. We’re ready to embrace those opportunities.”

“There’s a fear about the SVODs, but competition is actually really good for creativity,” added Connock. “There’s room for everybody!”