Michael von Würden Talks Formats Franchise Management


Michael von Würden, managing director of Snowman Productions, spoke about the enduring success of Married at First Sight and innovation in the formats space at the TV Real Festival.

You can watch von Würden’s keynote session with TV Formats’ Kristin Brzoznowski, which wrapped day two of the TV Real Festival, here.

“There are a lot of very successful dating formats out there,” von Würden said. “What Married does that some of the others are catching up with is the longevity and the appeal to numerous territories all around the world.”

Von Würden addressed the duty of care protocols around the format, in which strangers agree to marry after being matched by relationship experts. “We know that the people who participate in Married at First Sight are not the [usual] attention-seeking persons. It’s actually the everyday Joe and Jim and Jane and Joanne who are looking for love. We need to be careful about how we handle their initiation into the world of media because we need to consider them as vulnerable persons. They’re not used to being in the public eye. We film them 24/7. We know that Married at First Sight will attract a high level of social media interest, and they will be extremely exposed. So, we need to be careful to prepare them for it. We have a big [team] around them in terms of psychologists and duty-of-care personnel to keep in touch with them during and after shooting and especially when we are on-air. We recommend that every territory has an aftercare program for each participant so that we make sure they have a ‘safe landing’ afterward. It’s highly emotional; they are opening their heart to the public. So, we need to be very careful in managing their emotional stages. It has to be targeted individually to each participant.”

Brzoznowski asked von Würden about the process for casting the show and the guidance his teams can give producers adapting the format around the world. “From a viewer perspective, you want genuine, lovable people who are looking for true love. From a professional point of view as a producer, you also want people who create a lot of moments for television so that you get better ratings, more press and so forth. You need to balance that out so that you can get real people with a real story who also are able to ‘perform’ on television at the same time. It’s very delicate. It’s a big difference from territory to territory because there are so many cultural differences in terms of how open people are on television.”

Married at First Sight, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, originated in Denmark as Gift ved første blik in 2013. “It was a very ob-doc style where we hardly did any interference in the couple’s daily life,” von Würden said of the format’s evolution. “We were very much a fly on the wall. That was the right place to start because it made a framework for how you can challenge the dating show area in general but still be very careful in how you handle people’s lives. Over the years, as people got comfortable with the idea of marrying a total stranger, it opened up for other adaptations to take more liberties in terms of going in a more reality-driven construction of the show. It really sped up after the Australian version.”

The keynote then moved to von Würden’s process at Snowman for creating new concepts. He likened it to “making a nice dinner for your friends and family. You need to surprise them a little bit, but you need to make sure that there’s something they really want to eat—and you also make sure that there is enough on the table. When you try to persuade [a commissioner] to take a show on, they need to be surprised. Then you need a pinch of something that we recognize, we feel comfortable with, that perhaps reminds us a little of something we already have on our channels that works. Then, of course, there needs to be enough in the mix that we can see it has a season potential in it.”

In the case of Stranded on Honeymoon Island, “we said, can we take something that we know works, which is Married at First Sight, and combine it with Alone or Survivor, with a pinch of Robinson Crusoe on top of it? Everybody has an idea [about how they would be in a situation], which is the ‘wow’ thing for us. In MAFS it was, what would happen if you actually married a stranger? How would you react to it? In Stranded on Honeymoon Island, it was, what would you do if you fell off a ship and came to a deserted island with another person? And then combine it with something that we already know, which is the development of love between two people. There are also the dynamics and potential conflicts that can happen with a total stranger or somebody you have only met briefly before. It’s a mix of a lot of things, but it’s not that complicated. It’s just about combining them, and the measuring cup needs to be distributed the right way.”

Stranded on Honeymoon Island operates on a production hub model, “so you don’t have to go out and find your beaches or islands; we have them for you already. You don’t have to find hotels and make sure that you have food. You just have to find your cast, bring [them in], shoot your show, go home and edit it. It’s a bit of a takeaway shop.”

He added, “Everybody can benefit a little bit from each other in terms of knowledge. There are also economic benefits to it. We have done six countries already, so we have a lot of experience that we can pass on. We know what you need to do and where the pitfalls are.”

Von Würden stressed the importance of knowledge sharing in managing and nurturing format franchises. “We update and inform the new country or territory about everything: what has been done, what did work very well, what didn’t work well, what potentially could work well for them and also potential gimmicks, ideas and setups that could be thrown into the mix. In the end, it’s all about knowledge sharing; it’s very time-consuming and staff-heavy, but worth it. When you’re dealing with a format like Stranded on Honeymoon Island, just like Married at First Sight, you need to think about a lifecycle approach to it. As a format creator, you cannot think about one season only; you need to think about multiple seasons in multiple territories, because that, in the end, is where you actually make a profit. It’s not a short-term perspective. The more you share, the more you get.”