Formats Take the Spotlight in NATPE Budapest Session


This afternoon at NATPE Budapest International, BBC Studios’ Sumi Connock, Viacom International Media Networks’ Laura Burrell, Filmpool Entertainment’s Felix Wesseler and Red Arrow Studios International’s Bo Stehmeier shared their insights about the format business in a panel discussion moderated by World Screen’s Kristin Brzoznowski.

The session, titled “A World of Formats: Insights and Strategies for Distribution,” kicked off with the panelists weighing in about the current health and vibrancy of the format business.

Connock, the creative director of formats at BBC Studios, noted that “the big-hitters are all still working. We sold Dancing with the Stars in three new territories this year. What we’ve seen is that factual entertainment has been cutting through a lot more. Broadcasters are seeing that they can get the same level of audiences with factual entertainment, like Bake Off, as they can with the big shiny-floor entertainment shows.”

Burrell, the global head of formats at Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), said: “I think the industry is in a good, healthy place. All the big, key franchises are still the bedrock of a lot of broadcasters’ schedules. There are still plenty of broadcasters taking risks, us being one of them. There are lots of new ideas in development. There have been a lot of remakes and reimaginings of older formats. Not everyone can afford big, premium drama.”

Stehmeier, the senior VP of global sales at Red Arrow Studios International, agreed, noting that “people need to talk about speed more. In scripted, it takes forever and a day to get a show on air. Broadcasters in these changing ecosystems have to react very quickly to stay alive and be relevant, to cut through the clutter and also compete against the streamers. Being able to have an idea and be on air three months later is really important.”

Wesseler, the director of operations at Filmpool Entertainment, which specializes in constructed reality, said that tight budgets have actually contributed to the success of the company. “We take the best of factual entertainment and scripted to create constructed reality. That has helped us not only in CEE but also to grow rapidly.” These shows can present “dramatic storytelling but at a very reasonable cost,” he pointed out.

With regard to what’s working best in the marketplace at present, reality has been a sweet spot for VIMN, Burrell said. She highlighted the success of Ex on the Beach, which is in its ninth season in the U.K. and has been placed in 13 territories globally. “Of those 13, it’s an even split between our own channels localizing it and us selling it to third parties. That’s been a real success story for us. We have a spin-off now called Body SOS.”

BBC Studios’ Connock pointed to game shows as being particularly hot at the moment. “I think it’s the best-selling genre in formats at the moment,” she said, highlighting from the company’s catalog shows like Weakest Link, which is back on the air in a number of territories, and new titles like !mpossible, which was in daytime on BBC One but is now moving to a prime-time slot. “It ticks the box for affordable entertainment,” Connock noted.

For Wesseler and Filmpool, daily, high-volume, scripted drama-reality shows like Families at the Crossroads are seeing strong demand. He also highlighted the appetite for “edgy formats” such as Day and Night. “We look at how to use our production technique for different genres. We have taken on soaps with Day and Night, crime with Cases of Doubt and now we are taking a look at medical with Southside Hospital, using real doctors and real nurses but scripted cases.”

Red Arrow Studios’ Stehmeier emphasized that “affordability is really important” and so is having “accessible emotions that the average consumer in your nation can tap into. You have to carry that emotion with care and responsibility. The time of trash is gone,” he asserted. “It might come back again, but for right now, we’re in a clean space of authenticity and emotions.” He highlighted the social experiment Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds as an example.

Connock expressed the sentiment that shows with kids at the heart seem to be resonating quite well at the moment. BBC Studios, for one, is rolling out Dancing with the Stars Juniors.

The panelists all agreed that scripted remakes are enjoying a nice buzz at the moment as well. Red Arrow Studios has recently brought to the market the sitcom Lice Mother. The show was produced for the public broadcaster NPO3 in the Netherlands. “It is the most un-politically correct sitcom in the universe!” Stehmeier said. “What’s really sensational about this show is that it came from a very peculiar place and it got 65-percent market share. The whole nation was watching it! The theme tune became a top 10 track. From a commercial side, the revenue streams are huge. The characters, the lunchboxes for kids—there’s a whole area for this and the broadcasters can really see it.”

This brought up the topic of risk-taking in the current format market. BBC Studios’ Connock noted that “the creators need the confidence of the broadcaster to stick with the show in order for it to cut through. Our two best-selling formats are in baking and ballroom; that was a risk to put those on TV.” Bake Off started on BBC Two, getting around 2.5 million viewers, but by the time it finished on BBC One it was getting 16 million. “It was a great show, but it was also about the broadcaster believing in it.” She said that it’s important for broadcasters to give a show time to grow and to bring them back season after season. “There are so many places to find content that sometimes it takes the audience a bit of time to find it. Even if it’s not an overnight hit, you’ve got to give it a chance to grow and it will pay off.”

Stehmeier added that when it comes to innovation, sometimes it’s just about implementing a “fresh twist on something that feels very familiar.”

For Viacom, risk-taking has been part of the DNA of its channels, said Burrell. “It’s one of the best places you can come to if you’ve got a different idea…. MTV has been first in the space for a number of years, going right back to The Real World then Jersey Shore and Catfish—they were ahead of their time, really, and inspired lots of others.” She noted that Comedy Central has been making a push into producing more local programming as of late. “Comedy Central also, by its nature, needs to be a risk-taker. It’s comedy, so you’ve got to take some risks; you’ve got to do something unusual.” Burrell pointed to the Comedy Central shows Drunk History and Roast Battle as examples of youth-skewing series that are working well.

Filmpool’s Wesseler said that in order for a broadcaster to reach a young audience, risk-taking is incredibly important. He noted that for RTLII to commission the youth-skewed Day and Night was a “huge risk,” and that it wasn’t successful to begin with. “It was because of our social media strategy that it survived, because of Facebook. The programming director at that time was probably so close to being fired because of that show,” Wesseler joked. “They stuck with it. Commissioning a new soap is always a huge risk but it’s so worth it because once it comes to a certain level, it’s stronger than most of the other genres because it has a loyal audience.”

Regarding slots, the panelists noted that formats for access prime time are seeing a lot of traction. BBC Studios’ Connock said that “affordable entertainment” is what’s best suited for these access-prime slots. “Whether that’s game shows where you can record multiple episodes [in a day] or fact-ent.”

“There’s just so much pressure on prime time because of the Netflixes and other OTT players,” said VIMN’s Burrell. “One of the ways to combat that is to say, We need to get our audiences earlier; we’ve got to bolster our access.”

Red Arrow Studios’ Stehmeier agreed, adding that it’s particularly important for broadcasters that can allow for consolidated viewing figures. “If you are a linear broadcaster, you want to catch [consumers] when they sit down with the remote control rather than getting them off the streamers back to linear. I think that’s why access prime needs to be quite punchy…. Because it’s a new area, there’s more willingness to innovate, there’s also more willingness to allow brands to come in and help fund it. It’s an area that we’re really looking at and a very exciting area from a creative point of view and a business structure.”

Burrell cited some examples of formats that were created for prime time but have been reworked for access, including Are You the One?

“The strength of a good format is that you can adapt it to suit whatever [the broadcasters’] needs are,” added BBC Studios’ Connock.

Stehmeier chimed in, “If I were to be a gambling man and building a portfolio, access prime is where I would put my cash.”

To break into prime time, a show should have the ability to “create a conversation and have everyone talking about it,” said Connock, “whether it’s a voting window or something that you need to react to straightaway.”

“What you’re presenting has to be a world rather than an idea,” Stehmeier added. “You need to go: This is the show, this is the extended viewing on Snapchat, and this is how you would feature it on your radio station…. It’s about how you give it a life on all these different mediums.”

In terms of linear broadcasters, there are new opportunities for format sales popping up with niche networks and sister channels to the main broadcasters, the panelists noted. “A great format can work on multiple platforms,” added Connock. “When we did Stupid Man, Smart Phone, we launched it on BBC Three in the U.K., then it went to linear in Denmark and then we did it in India on a mobile platform.”

OTT and SVOD platforms are also presenting new opportunities for the format business. Stehmeier noted the “big dark horse in the room, which is AVOD, is going to hit us at some point with brand money. When you’re casting and you find a great character in fact-ent or non-scripted, that great character can still beat any scripted show in that timely environment. It’s still a very powerful tool. What is interesting, though, is that as the FAANGs are pressured by media and European policy to regionalize, there are new streamers, one being ShowMax, coming into Eastern Europe. We’ve started doing deals with them in formats and unscripted. For example, they’re taking a [format] and remaking it in the four major regions of Eastern Europe to make their SVOD offering more local, feel more homey. One should look out not just for the big ones but also in your own [local markets] for the telecoms. They’ve got money, and they need to be regional.”

“I think it’s quite interesting that the OTTs haven’t necessarily broken the mold when it comes to unscripted,” Connock said. “They’ve looked toward linear to what they’re commissioning now.”

Filmpool’s Wesseler said that if these digital platforms “are going to attract their audiences regularly, not only in a binge-watching mode, they need to have daily formats that really make you want to watch it now and tomorrow and after tomorrow.”

The panelists also shared their thoughts on the future of the format business and where the greatest opportunities can be found. “Game shows will continue to be big,” said Connock. “We’ve seen a big growth in scripted formats, particularly in Asia. It’s expensive to do drama, but if you’ve got the characters and the storylines created for you, you can get into production quite quickly. We’ve got a big heritage and pedigree in British drama that we can share.”

“I think linear still pays most of our paychecks,” said Red Arrow Studios’ Stehmeier. “It’s about loving linear and looking after it. The word I used earlier is ‘speed’—working with [linear channels] closely, going from tapping into a zeitgeist of a nation or a broadcaster and turning that around into a beautiful piece of entertainment. I think [it’s also important] for us all to build infrastructure to test content, gather data, perfect our pitch and have an area of trust so we can really tap into what’s happening around the world. If you want to differentiate yourself from the streamers, getting closer and closer to sports and live [events], but still being in the entertainment industry, is where the most business will be made.”

Wesseler believes that it’s “absolutely crucial to take your audience very seriously. That’s an advantage that every local broadcaster has compared to the globally acting companies. You can create stories [for your specific local audience] far better than any global player can do right now.”

Connock quipped, “If you can make someone laugh, cry or throw something at the screen, then you’ve got a hit format!”

VIMN’s Burrell said, “We want to keep innovating…but don’t be afraid to go back to the old things. Really look at it—you might not need to do too much to it to still make it relevant…. Stay true to your audience and serve the local audience as well.”