From Got Talent to Idols, Family Feud to The Price is Right, Fremantle is home to some of the biggest format brands in the business. Rob Clark, director of global entertainment, has been encouraging the teams at the company’s vast network of production partners to keep a close eye on their local markets for innovative ideas that could become international hits. A champion of risk-taking, Clark tells TV Formats how these efforts have been paying off, putting Fremantle in peak-performance mode creatively.
TV FORMATS: Do you think that scripted “peak TV” has peaked and the pendulum is swinging back the other way toward unscripted entertainment?
CLARK: Television is quite cyclical; people will commission more dramas, then get bored with that and commission more entertainment. If you look at major broadcasters, their entertainment commissioning is on the rise.
When you can spot a trend, it’s no longer worth spotting; it’s a fact. It was a trend a few years ago, and now it’s a fact: there are more people commissioning entertainment than there has been for a while.
TV FORMATS: What types of entertainment are most in demand?
CLARK: One genre that has really gone into overdrive and is performing way above its normal benchmark is game shows. Looking at America, it’s gone from being a game show-free zone five years ago to having prime-time schedules that have been dominated by game shows. ABC went from being a second [place] network to being the major network over the summer period, and they’ve done that on the back of scheduling game shows on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Among big commercial networks, game shows are certainly the genre that is attracting a lot of attention at the moment. After the success that ABC had in the States, we have been talking to all the major networks about other game shows that are available. ITV [in the U.K.] is commissioning game shows left, right and center. There seems to be a trend throughout Europe whereby networks are coming back to game shows.
Again, it’s cyclical. You often see increases in game-show commissions when the global economy is tanking. In 2007–08, that was the last spike in game-show commissions. Why? Because they’re relatively economical, safe and they attract a broad family audience for co-viewing. Also, for a lot of younger people who are in the key demo that’s so sought-after by broadcasters, they have never seen game shows! They’re new to them. What is a heritage show for me is brand new for a 19-year-old; they don’t know that it preexisted or who the old host was.
This is good news for us because Fremantle is the home of the game show. We have a big catalog of game shows, and we have more game shows being made at the moment than we have for many years. We have 40 different brands of game shows being produced this year so far.
TV FORMATS: What’s your view on the quest for “the next big thing”?
CLARK: The idea that there’s never going to be another global hit is utter nonsense. [Laughs] The networks are desperate for global hits. If it’s a hit that’s traveled, it proves that the format works and can attract an audience.
There’s an argument that there hasn’t been space for new global formats because the old global formats are still doing rather well. This year is the wrong year to put that argument forward. There is a huge format that is traveling around the world at a rate of knots: The Masked Singer. It is the breakout hit this year. It took a long time to come outside of its homeland of Korea, but it was a big hit in America. It has sold in nearly every European territory, as well as in Australia and Mexico. We have rights [for The Masked Singer] in many European territories, and we’ve sold it in an awful lot of them. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, another global behemoth.
It has been a long time coming, though. We haven’t really had something of that scale since The Voice. Before that, they were sort of like busses all arriving: The X Factor, Idols, Got Talent. Then we had to wait a while before we got The Voice, and now we’ve got The Masked Singer.
TV FORMATS: How are you tapping into the creative minds of Fremantle’s network of production companies for new format concepts?
CLARK: Fremantle is set up like a federal system in a way. Each territory has its own production company, and the bigger territories have their own development team. Centrally, that development is monitored, and we’ll back it with money, our knowledge and passion, and we will work with our broadcast partners to get it on air. We do that not just within the network of companies like Fremantle France or Fremantle Spain; we also do it with the companies that we’ve invested in, as part of our strategy where we’ve made minority investments that will build to overall ownership in the long run. We have a vast network mainly centered around Europe and America, but not exclusively there. As a creative entity, at the moment, we’re probably at peak performance for the time that I’ve been here, which is 16 years. We’re in good shape creatively, in terms of idea-generation and commissions for new shows.
That is not to say that we will not work with third-party producers. It’s always been my belief that a good idea can come from anywhere; that’s not just anywhere geographically, it’s anywhere within our industry or outside of our industry. Vasha Wallace [Fremantle’s executive VP of global acquisitions and development] and I meet people on a very regular basis, sometimes from big companies, sometimes from tiny companies, sometimes people who are just idea machines themselves. We’re always happy to meet people with good ideas and support them, whether they’re part of an internal company, a partly-owned company or a completely third-party individual.
TV FORMATS: What’s your view on the future of the format business with regard to the streaming players?
CLARK: People are platform-agnostic. From a Fremantle point of view, we want our programs, our formats, our IP and the stars who we work with to be on the most appropriate platform. What is great at the moment is that that platform could be a streamer, a traditional broadcaster, a global network, a national SVOD. These are markets that didn’t exist five years ago. For a company the size of Fremantle, with our creative output and depth of catalog, this is a fantastic time to be a producer.
What streamers want are brands. When you have a back catalog like ours, with names that people recognize, those big global platforms are often perfect for us. We’re willing to do work-for-hire like with Confetti [on Facebook Watch], as long as it’s a global deal. We don’t have to be the IP owner. We have to be nimble and find different ways of working, and in doing that, we can work for everybody.
TV FORMATS: When you’re assessing the future of the format business, where do you see the greatest opportunities?
CLARK: I’ve learned that it’s really important to listen to your gut and to take risks. I sometimes worry that some of our broadcasters are too risk-averse—not all of them and not every time. To really create magnetic brands—that literally draw an audience in and won’t let them go—it has to be something new. It’s not just a twist of the dial; it’s quite a big turn of the dial. It needs to look fresh, feel fresh; it needs to be different!
That’s why The Masked Singer works. I have so much admiration for Rob Wade [president of alternative entertainment and specials] and his team at FOX who made the decision to go with The Masked Singer. It had been around for quite a long time, and nobody could see its potential; they could. The minute it was a hit in America, then, of course, everybody could see its potential. I admire broadcasters that take those sorts of risks. I’d like to see more risk-taking and more believing in gut [instinct] instead of always wanting to have everything proven before it goes on air. We would never have been able to launch Idols or Got Talent if we’d have been in that situation. You couldn’t prove them; they were too big! You just have to take a deep breath, say yes, and then wait and see what the audience wants and hope they like it.