In early March, veteran executive and producer John Hesling was named executive VP, head of FOX Alternative Entertainment (FAE), FOX Entertainment’s in-house unscripted studio. He has responsibility for overseeing the development and production of all unscripted series owned by FOX Entertainment, as well as programs FAE produces for third-party buyers in the U.S. and abroad. The slate includes hits such as The Masked Singer, Next Level Chef, I Can See Your Voice and much more. He talks to TV Formats about the development slate, production pipeline and the International Unscripted Format Fund.
TV FORMATS: What’s guiding the development strategy for FAE at present?
HESLING: First and foremost, it’s delivering hit shows to the network. My first order of business since joining FAE is immersing myself with FOX, meeting with Allison Wallach [president of unscripted programming for FOX Entertainment] and her team to understand what it is that they need and trying to anticipate what they don’t even know that they need now. So, there are certain genres we’re developing in that we know work well on network, like in the singing performance space, for example. So, there’s a big focus on that, and we’re doing a number of proof of concepts for a couple of new singing shows at the moment.
Then there’s also a focus on moonshots, if you will—series you wouldn’t necessarily think about on FOX. The shows that are completely unexpected and when you go and pitch them, they’re like, “What?!?!” Things that are visually different or have an element to them that you haven’t really seen before, in the same way The Masked Singer burst onto the landscape. We’re aggressively looking at concepts that you’d never anticipate in a million years.
TV FORMATS: How many projects is an ideal number to have in development for a given year?
HESLING: We have approximately 30 shows in various stages of development. Some piloting proof of concepts, some just some germs of ideas spanning multiple genres and formats. It’s important to keep your development focused so that you can really dive in deep on each project. If you have too many, you can only do a very superficial look at them, and your development can become unwieldy.
A majority of our development is for FOX, as ownership is a key component of our overall programming strategy, but we do develop for our AVOD platform, Tubi, as well as third parties. The win-win for us is getting a hit on the network. But development isn’t a very precise science, and we have the liberty to work with other platforms in the U.S. and abroad when and where a concept isn’t a strong fit for FOX.
TV FORMATS: What about for the production pipeline?
HESLING: I’m a producer at heart and want to be involved in as many series as possible; so, my reflex answer is the more shows, the better, frankly. I’d say at any given time we have about eight to ten series in production that run the gamut, from The Masked Singer, Name That Tune and I Can See Your Voice to our Gordon Ramsay series produced with his team at Studio Ramsay Global—Next Level Chef, Gordon Ramsay’s Food Stars, etc.—and FOX’s upcoming series Snake Oil, hosted by David Spade and executive produced by Will Arnett, to the numerous third-party series we have in the works.
TV FORMATS: In terms of producing for third parties, what’s the strategy there?
HESLING: While my mission is to create and produce owned IP for FOX, there’s a meaningful market for premium unscripted content both in the U.S. and across the globe, which represents an amazing opportunity for FAE. In launching FAE, Rob [Wade, CEO of FOX Entertainment] and Allison laid the foundation for the studio to work with any and all buyers when and where appropriate. We recently produced the dating show Love Trip: Paris for Freeform in the U.S. and several years ago formed our International Unscripted Format Fund to identify intellectual property for the global market that, in success, can be formatted for FOX.
In that regard, we’ve partnered with BiggerStage on the variety competition program The Big Deal for Virgin Media Television in Ireland and with Workpoint in Thailand on the celebrity performance competition The Masterpiece, which we are formatting for the international market as Celebrity Masterpiece. Our newest third-party series include TF1’s Beat My Mini-Mes, co-produced with TF1 Production, and Marriage Market, which FAE developed with (and for) ProSieben and will produce with Cheerio Entertainment.
TV FORMATS: Talk to me about producing international projects.
HESLING: One of the reasons I decided to join FAE is because it’s the most interesting time in television that I’ve seen in my career. The unscripted space has truly become a global business, allowing us to innovate, explore and partner with like-minded companies.
It’s no secret series can come from anywhere, no matter the provenance, and since the dawn of time, some of the best ideas have gone undiscovered. A big part of my job is to seek out and identify those concepts, and there is no shortage of creators and platforms with the most brilliant ideas, but not all of the pieces to bring them full circle. This is what makes our International Unscripted Format Fund all the timelier. We’ve had great success on international partnerships that brought The Big Deal to Ireland and The Masterpiece to Thailand, and we’re very much looking forward to Marriage Market launching in Germany and Beat My Mini-Mes in France this year. With this momentum, I anticipate FAE entering into more co-production partnerships to deliver quality formats that enjoy success on the local level but have enormous potential to travel to the U.S. and other territories.
TV FORMATS: Looking at the current entertainment landscape, what’s working best at the moment?
HESLING: Oh, that’s such a difficult question, isn’t it? You’ve got the sort of heritage shows that keep moving along. But the series that really have become part of the conversation are dating formats, like higher concept shows in the genre that have sort of a social experiment [element] to them that tie into something that’s inherent in human nature, adds in layers that make it a bit more eccentric and have meaningful stakes so viewers still care about it.
So again, it goes back to that thing of just thinking about what is it that people really like? What are the universal conversations we always have in different languages around the world? It’s about tapping into those but coming to those things with a slightly different angle, something that feels fresh and doesn’t feel derivative.
TV FORMATS: How does your previous experience, including at Maverick TV, Shed Media and BBC Entertainment, serve you well as you take on this role?
HESLING: I’ve been really lucky in my career, doing so many different types of shows, and that’s from filming elephants in Northeast India and tribes in the middle of the Indonesian Rainforest to Dragons’ Den back in the U.K. to Real Housewives since. So, I’ve done the gamut of shows, right? And that has given me two really lucky things—one of which is just an understanding of what makes a great show in whatever genre.
And it’s that kind of understanding of how to put together a show that feels unique and the audience is going to respond to. Also, international. I’ve worked a lot abroad, whether it’s in Britain or here in America or wherever it is in the world. I’ve worked in heaps of different countries and that’s made me very excited about the possibilities and potential they each have. I think for me, it’s a combination of the breadth of shows that I’ve done and also the international experience of that.
TV FORMATS: What are the big-picture priorities for the 12 to 18 months ahead for FAE?
HESLING: Hit shows. It’s just hit shows, getting another hit show on the network, at least one, one or two hit shows in the network, and establishing ourselves in the broader buying community in America and throughout the world, as well.