FOX Alternative Entertainment’s Allison Wallach

Allison Wallach, who started her role as executive VP and head of FOX Alternative Entertainment (FAE) just six weeks before Hollywood went into its Covid-19 shutdown, tells TV Formats about the appeal of Crime Scene Kitchen and what makes it formattable (with the finished tape and format being rolled out by FAE’s distribution partner, Propagate Content), innovative international alliances, the studio’s new and returning slate and trends she’s watching in the format business today.

Hybrid formats and new spins on competition shows are the types of concepts Allison Wallach has her eye on at FOX Alternative Entertainment. FOX’s non-scripted studio produces the megahit The Masked Singer—indeed a new take on celebrity singing contests—brought Korea’s I Can See Your Voice to America and is now seeing success with Crime Scene Kitchen, a guessing game/food competition hosted by Joel McHale in which bakers need to decipher what dessert was prepared by spending just a few minutes with some helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) clues.

TV FORMATS: Tell us about Crime Scene Kitchen.
WALLACH: Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan from Fly on the Wall Entertainment brought it into the network. They pitched the genesis of this idea, which was basically let’s do a detective baking show. Rob Wade [FOX’s president of alternative entertainment and specials] sent it over to the studio and said, Let’s develop it out. Initially, it wasn’t just baked goods. Do we do savory and sweet? What does that look like? But then it became pretty clear as we got into it that there’s a huge difference between baking and cooking. Baking is a real science. When you’re going to find contestants, you need an either/or. You’re not going to find people who are good at both. It developed out from there. Bringing on Joel McHale was the secret sauce. There are a lot of baking shows out there, probably the best being The Great British Baking Show. What they managed to do with that show so well was add humor to lighten it up. The dirty secret is there is real drama in these shows. You wouldn’t expect it, but there’s a lot of drama because there’s a lot at stake when these contestants mess up. What seems to be working well on FOX is more levity. We wanted to make sure the humor was there. Joel has been so terrific. It’s a really fun show. I don’t know if you bake. I don’t, but I do love watching baking shows because I love to eat! [Laughs] During Covid, a lot of people started picking up baking and cooking. That fan base, which is already huge, grew more. It’s a hybrid where it’s a little bit of a guessing game, combined with food.

TV FORMATS: Tell us about the casting process.
WALLACH: It was trying to find variety—in relationships, in experience. They all had to be amateur bakers, but we wanted to make sure there would be a diverse group. Some are married couples, some are just friends, mother-daughter, former partners. It’s about pulling out all that chemistry, plus the drama that goes on when there’s tension. We made a point of casting a wide net to find that variety.

TV FORMATS: What do Curtis Stone and Yolanda Gampp bring to the show as judges?
WALLACH: Again, it was about finding the right balance. It’s the right chemistry between the talent. And making sure we had people with the right experience—Yolanda, clearly, with her baking knowledge, and Curtis’s culinary skills in general. And they didn’t have the same experience; that was important. We didn’t want to have two bakers. They complement each other very well.

TV FORMATS: The challenges are absolutely remarkable.
WALLACH: I have to give the producers real credit. It was tricky. Conrad Green, the executive producer, has a real knowledge of baking. Initially, we would go through what some of the challenges would be, and I’d say, I’ve never heard of that cake! I don’t think 90 percent of Americans have ever heard of that cake! No one is going to guess what a floating island is! [Laughs] It was fun going through it. I and a few others dumbed it down for those of us at home who would never have guessed because we’d never seen or heard of that cake before. That, too, was finding the right balance. As the challenges get more difficult, it’s making sure it still feels accessible to a broader audience.

TV FORMATS: What are some of the key format pillars that make this easily adaptable in any country in the world?
WALLACH: The challenges themselves, the pastries themselves, can be tailored to any territory. And outside of that, it’s pretty turnkey. We’ve seen a proliferation of guessing games out there. I think this plays into what’s been working in Korea, Japan, around the world.

TV FORMATS: What was it like setting up FAE just before lockdowns hit and then having to pivot your business to producing in a brand-new way?
WALLACH: It was actually pretty awesome! It was scary for everybody. We were all going into new territory. There was no question it had to be done—we needed stuff in the pipeline. We have an amazing team that was talking to L.A. County about the protocols. We just had to find ways to keep moving. We quickly pivoted. The day everything shut down, we had just finished the first episode of I Can See Your Voice. We didn’t end up picking up filming on that until July. But we did quickly think, What can we do [during lockdown]? We did The Masked Singer: After the Mask in the studio. It was the talent being very brave and trusting us. They came into the studio when people weren’t leaving their houses. They were willing to Zoom from their homes. Everyone played ball. It brought everyone together. I Can See Your Voice was the first show to go back into production. Ken Jeong gave the rest of the crew and the cast confidence—partially because he’s a doctor—that as long as we followed protocol, we’d be OK. I commend him for that.

TV FORMATS: The FOX version of The Masked Singer seems to have set the gold standard for the format, with many broadcasters picking it up after the network’s successful adaptation. What do you think it is about FOX’s take that has worked so well?
WALLACH: We have these conversations regularly: You’re in the sixth season, you should be able to do it by rote; it should be turnkey. The truth is, with Masked Singer, every season is treated like a snowflake. We change the format up. We add in other elements to keep it fresh. I truly believe that has helped the success of it. It’s challenging to do. We can’t put it on autopilot and let it go. No two seasons are alike. How can you surprise the audience? What can be unexpected?

TV FORMATS: What else is on your slate at the studio?
WALLACH: We’ve got a lot going on right now! We finished Name That Tune and are hoping to go back into production on that. We’re filming Domino Masters. We have Alter Ego, our big new avatar competition. We have Next Level Chef, our Studio Ramsay show that we’re producing in Las Vegas.

We developed a relationship with producers in Ireland [BiggerStage]. We had an idea for a show that we thought we would pilot at FOX. And then once we did the math, we realized, actually, if we produce this in Ireland and put it on a big network there, we could probably produce six episodes for the same cost as a pilot here. It’s called The Big Deal. Boy George is heading the cast. It launches this fall in Ireland [on Virgin Media Television]. If it works there, then we’ll bring it back to the network here. We’re looking at doing more things like that.

TV FORMATS: What trends are you seeing in the global format landscape?
WALLACH: It seems like there’s a big trend of betting on yourself. There are certainly the guessing games—that’s endless at this point. Performance shows have traditionally worked on FOX, so we’re always keeping an eye open for a fresh take on that. And hybrid shows: cooking and betting, or dating and dancing. We keep an eye out for those.

TV FORMATS: Tell us about the FASTRACK program you announced earlier this year to boost diversity in unscripted programming.
WALLACH: Here we are talking about how we have to make sure we have diverse voices in our shows. We realized there’s not enough diversity behind the camera. We started this program and we had two candidates start in January. It’s given them the opportunity to learn about whatever areas they’re interested in, whether it’s postproduction or production, and we’re able to grow from within and put them on our shows.