For nearly two decades, Rob Clark, currently the director of global entertainment at Fremantle, has overseen the rollout of dozens of successful formats, spanning several genres, from talent competitions to dating and quiz shows. As he prepares to step down at the company, Clark shares with TV Formats the elements he deems essential for a program to travel to several countries and satisfy today’s audiences.
TV FORMATS: What are you hearing from broadcasters about their format needs today?
CLARK: There is a positivity about most broadcasters in that they seem to have found a way of bucking the trend in their ratings. They are looking for new formats and new content.
At Fremantle, there are two prongs to our development and production. One is local, where a show is developed in a territory and stays in that territory, and we don’t ever expect it to travel. My job is to look for things that can travel and become multi-territory or global. In those areas, what we are looking for is, as ever, universal themes. We’ve got formats that are about first love. We’ve got formats that explore friendship. We’ve got formats that explore relationships that have been well established. We’ve got formats that are about adventure and romance.
The other aspect is that it’s a fun and very positive slate. There is nothing that I would call negative or downbeat. In Europe, where the majority of our production companies are, there is a big war for the first time in most of our lifetimes. The consequences of that are an economic downturn; people are worried about a recession, security for their fuel and inflation. In this slate, I’ve tried to look for something that is a complete antidote to that. Everything is fun and friendly. Also, a lot of the shows are family-friendly. I still think television, no matter the platform, [provides] an opportunity for families to sit down and share. And in a recession, you’re not going to do that much in the theater or restaurants. Some families will do it solely at home in big pullovers because they won’t be having their gas or heating!
TV FORMATS: Are there key elements to dating, talent competition and quiz shows? Have those elements changed since the audience has so much choice?
CLARK: I always used to say to our development team that there are three pillars [to a format]. It has to be transferable; it can’t be culturally tied to one specific thing in your country. It has to be scalable because if you are going to make a show that transfers across the world, then you need to make it with an American budget for a large country and a much smaller budget for a country with a smaller population or GDP. It also has to be returnable. We don’t want a show we make once and can never return.
I would add that it needs to be promotable. You need something that instantly grabs you. That can be a concept, a style, or a look. It needs to grab quickly and have an engaging title because if it hasn’t got an engaging title, no one will watch it. I think that is the under-explored area of TV. How many shows were quite good but had dreadful titles? I’m always intrigued by Cash Mountain. Would Cash Mountain have been a huge hit? A few weeks before it went on air, [the title was changed] to Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I’m convinced that called Cash Mountain, it wouldn’t have been the hit it was. Everyone at the network involved in the change was spot on. It needed to change.
Also, clever developers develop shows within the world. The world isn’t the same as it was, regardless of how many people watch television or where we watch it. The real-world experiences of our audience change what they’re looking for. I believe they are looking for something that takes them away from the realities of the world that they live in. There is a degree of escapism.
Throughout the lockdown period, we had to learn how to reinvent television production. You couldn’t have the same production crews or the same audiences. That flexibility that we as a company showed over that period has carried through. We are less rigid about how we do things. We are more willing to adapt a format.
TV FORMATS: Tell us about the importance of casting.
CLARK: Casting is essential to a show. There are two areas to casting. One is the celebrity aspect. Big names bring audiences; not always, but they often do, particularly if you get the name right. We are bringing several shows to the market that have big names. Password with Jimmy Fallon and Keke Palmer. Unbreakable with Rob Beckett is launching on BBC One. He’s a big star, and it’s a different sort of show for him, so it’s exciting.
Casting contestants or talent on talent shows is why we watch them. I’ve spent my entire life working with real people on television, except for a sitcom I wrote. Real people, if cast brilliantly, bring something so unique. I cut my teeth on a dating show called Blind Date. It was completely driven by the cast, [starting with] the host who managed to get out the stories, humor and love interest. That gave me respect for making sure that you get it right when you are casting shows.
If you look at a show like Got Talent, people watch that for those moments. They don’t necessarily watch it as much for the bad moments, and I think that is the change. They do sometimes want to be shocked and scared. But they also want to see what they consider [ordinary] people succeed on that stage in front of the judges.
Casting is also a way of bringing real diversity that isn’t being shoehorned into a format because you are looking for all sorts of talent across your whole population—different races, cultures and age ranges. Got Talent is probably the best example I’ve ever worked on in terms of having naturally diverse casting on a show.
If you’re looking at dating shows, there are two sorts of [contestants on] dating shows. Some are there purely for entertainment. If somebody comes on that show and is desperate for love, then for God’s sake, don’t cast them because we’re not watching it for that! We want to laugh and have fun. We want them to be funny, witty and charming. If there is a romance at the end—great! But we don’t want Mrs. Desperate. Then you have other shows that rely on the fact that the cast is seriously looking for love. Farmer Wants a Wife is probably the best example from our catalog. You’ve got farmers in isolated places. They work odd hours and find it very difficult to find a partner. There needs to be a real need. In that sense, that is an essential casting thing. If you put a joker in there, they’re just on to entertain everybody, and that’s not going to work.
TV FORMATS: In your years working in the business, of which shows or accomplishments are you most proud?
CLARK: If you go back to 2003 when I joined Fremantle, and you look at our catalog then and now, it’s a very different beast. I believe that over the last 19 years, we’ve found shows, developed and acquired shows that will be on air for the rest of my life and probably lots of younger people’s lives. When you look after a catalog like Fremantle’s, and you’ve got shows like The Price Is Right and Family Feud, you realize what a privilege it is.
And then you’ve got big beasts like Got Talent, The X Factor and Idols.These changed the way people watched television. And the way we made television. They changed how broadcasters had to budget these shows because they are not cheap. But they bring audiences and the right sort of audiences from a commercial point of view.