Next Big Thing?

Jo Stephens hears from several leading buyers about the types of formats they’re on the lookout for.

If the most-asked question in format land is, “Where’s the next big thing?” then “What do buyers want?” is surely the second. There are, of course, as many answers as there are buyers and commissioners. Some want feel-good storytelling, some want shiny-floor glamour, others want poignant emotional journeys. But beyond genre and flavor, there are several common denominators. Everybody’s looking for inclusive, topical and authentic concepts that are returnable, scalable, extendable, bendable and capable of delivering on both linear and digital. And, as Anette Romer, TV 2 Denmark’s head of acquisitions and formats, points out, most also want something that’s relevant to their audience’s lives, cultures and experiences.

“My perfect format would be a show that feels entertaining, engaging and inspiring,” Romer says. “A show that makes you feel that watching it has been time well spent.”

At the top of Romer’s MIPCOM shopping list are factual entertainment and pure entertainment formats, mainly for TV 2’s prime-time slots. She is also seeking shows capable of engaging younger viewers on TV 2 sister channels Charlie and Zulu. “Our briefs haven’t changed much over the years,” she adds. “We’re always looking for creatives who can paint the picture from a new and fresh perspective.”

Romer touches on a sensitive point. Over the past few years, there has been much talk about the format market’s lackluster performance on the “new and fresh” front. The creative end of the business has been criticized for failing to generate ideas strong enough to challenge the mega-format franchises that continue to clog up global schedules. Broadcasters, meanwhile, have been accused of risk aversion, me-too-ism and shortsightedness. As traditional funding models implode, budgets contract and digital continues to fracture and fragment the market, investing the time and money necessary to develop and grow successful formats has gone from standard practice to luxury.

Romer, however, believes the tide is turning—creatively, at least. “There are a lot of good ideas coming our way. It seems that factual and factual entertainment are experiencing a creative boost at the moment.” As for the prime-time stranglehold of the super-formats, she says, “To develop channels, you need a mix of well-known big brands and fresh, new, unproven formats.” Producing the latter, she adds, requires both courage and a broadcast culture that gives permission to fail.

Fellow Nordic exec Karolina Stallwood, the VP of content at MTG, also reports an uptick in creativity. The problem, she says, isn’t a lack of big, brave concepts, but that, as video becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it’s getting harder and harder to find them. In this saturated environment, “even the most creative formats can get crowded out,” she observes. Meanwhile, the battle for eyeballs is intensifying, adding to the temptation to fall back on proven bankers. The irony, of course, is that audiences crave the shock and excitement of the new, not the predictability and safety of the old. As Stallwood points out, “Why not be bold and try new things? After all, that’s exactly what our viewers are doing.”

Stallwood defines a format as “a framework for telling stories” and cites drama, reality and factual entertainment as particularly suited to MTG’s mission of providing its viewers with engaging storytelling across its platform universe. “Combining great formats and innovative platforms gives you a chance to tell better stories to more people—at any time of the day,” she adds.

For Stallwood, genres are never out, or, indeed, in. “The power of a story to engage our audience is all that matters. There’s no such thing as a perfect format, because the needs and behaviors of your audience are always changing. We have to understand our viewers and constantly reinvent ourselves if we want to keep engaging and inspiring.”

Given this philosophy, it is no surprise to learn that MTG is producer-agnostic when it comes to adapting formats to local markets, selecting the creative team it feels will “tell the story best.” Since MTG includes content powerhouse nice entertainment group, which consists of some 30 production companies in 17 countries, it has no shortage of creative options within its own corporate family.

Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland employs a similar approach to localization. “It’s actually simple,” says Jörg Graf, COO of program affairs. “TV is made by people and different people have different skills. Sometimes, the best EP for a real-life show is not the best EP for a shiny-floor event show.”

However, “bringing together the best format with the best creative talent” isn’t always easy, or indeed possible in a global industry increasingly given to M&As and vertical integration. Fortunately, Graf says, smart media companies recognize that pushing formats through “the pipeline of a value chain” is no substitute for investing in creative talent.

Graf’s acquisition strategy is not driven by notions of what’s hot and what’s not given that he has a wide range of RTL channels to feed, with correspondingly wide requirements. “We don’t exclude any genre or time slot,” he says. But what’s definitely “out,” he adds, are “format owners, producers and broadcasters who don’t think and act as partners, [since] each of them can prevent a format from being successful.”

When it comes to acquisitions, RTL’s current focus is on prime-time reality, real-life and variety shows. Inter­national formats remain “an important pillar for our channels,” Graf says, pointing to The Best Singers and Dragons’ Den on VOX, and Ninja Warrior, The Bachelor, Got Talent and Let’s Dance on RTL. While RTL’s daytime fare has traditionally consisted of domestic productions, again this is not a hard-and-fast rule. “We would do international format-based shows, too, if they were promising,” Graf reports.

Deciding which formats are most promising is greatly influenced by the willingness of the IP owner to allow the original concept to be “Germanized,” Graf notes. “It’s not in our interest to jeopardize other people’s IP or to dilute brands,” he stresses. The object is not to buy a show and then reinvent it—“that wouldn’t make sense at all”—but to finesse the story­telling and certain elements, such as the role of the host, into a form that works for German audiences. This is something of an art form in itself and one that RTL has perfected in its home market. “We think this is the reason why we are so successful in keeping shows alive while they get canceled in other territories,” Graf observes.

TV 2’s Romer backs up Graf’s view about localization. “Adapting a format is not about making as many changes as possible. It’s about analyzing and understanding the core idea and launching the best possible version of it in your own territory.”

Back at RTL, Graf rejects the charge that, with the big format franchises still doing good business in prime time, broadcasters have neither the room nor the inclination to try out new concepts. In the past year, he points out, RTL alone has produced more than 20 new formats, both scripted and unscripted, including TBS’s Ninja Warrior (represented in Europe by The Story Lab), Warner Bros.’ 500 Questions and Talpa’s Dance Dance Dance. Significantly, many of these new shows are inhabiting the time slots previously filled by international scripted drama and feature films, rather than going head to head with existing non-scripted formats.

In the end, Graf says, it comes down to whether a new contender is a stronger proposition than the incumbent. “We all know that ‘better’ is the enemy of ‘good,’” he points out.

This is a sentiment echoed by Hannah Barnes, the general manager of the Lifestyle Channels at Foxtel, when she says, “I believe there is always room for a great new idea.” Barnes’s portfolio includes Foxtel’s flagship Lifestyle channel and its subsidiaries Lifestyle FOOD, Lifestyle YOU and Lifestyle HOME. “We acquire 1,200 hours per channel a year for all day parts,” Barnes reports, citing returnable, aspirational lifestyle series that can “live on linear and digital in a meaningful way” as her top priority. Recent acquisitions include Studio Lambert’s Common Sense. Gogglebox, Grand Designs, Selling Houses and Bake Off have also been successfully re-versioned for Australia.

When assessing a potential format, Barnes requires a full proposal, a sizzle and a producer or creative with a strong track record attached. Once the show is commissioned, she prefers to work directly with the format-holder to find the right production company in Australia. As to how much leeway Lifestyle demands when it comes to the adaptation process, Barnes says it’s a fine line between respect for the IP and local relevance. The Great Australian Bake Off provides an example. “I think we are the only market in the world that didn’t use a tent for Bake Off, but a shed, which feels uniquely Australian.”

Unsurprisingly, in light of Lifestyle’s mission to “inspire and entertain,” mean-spirited formats are definitely off Barnes’s wish list. “As a broadcaster, we are always looking to surprise and delight our viewers,” she says. “But being relevant and listening to your audience is more important than a quest for innovation.”

With “adventure, survival and challenge” in its editorial DNA, RMC Découverte is keen on shows that innovate and disrupt. And according to Rodolphe Guignard, the French DTT channel’s head of productions and broadcast, there is no shortage of the former. “Regarding the level of innovation in today’s format business, I’m impressed. New tools are offering new opportunities to make great, visually amazing shows.”

Guignard is less upbeat, however, about the level of creativity. He attributes this to the major broadcasters’ reluctance to take the road less traveled, both in terms of investing in new and surprising ideas, and daring to program against the genres du jour. “We notice that trends—dating, survival, whatever—have become widespread around the world,” he says. Against this backdrop, format creators are not encouraged to pitch anything but the same old, safe old concepts.

Altice Group-owned RMC Découverte, however, is open to prime-time ideas that provoke, disrupt and provide its largely male-skewing audience with factual, factual entertainment and documentary content that is, as per its motto, “plus fort que la fiction” (“stronger than fiction”). “We’re not after the same audience profile as the main channels, so it’s easier for us to commission new shows on new topics,” Guignard adds.

Founded in late 2012, RMC Découverte has come a long way in less than five years, much of it as a result of well-chosen and sensitively adapted international formats. By 2014, it had become France’s leading HD DTT channel, posting the biggest audience growth in the French TV sector that year. In 2015, it was the first European channel to adapt BBC Worldwide’s monster motoring format Top Gear. In June, it renewed its agreement with BBC Worldwide France for seasons four, five and six of the French version.

The success of Top Gear, not just in France but in territories as culturally diverse as Australia, South Korea, China, Russia and the U.S., has much to do with the strength and clarity of what Ole Hedemann, head of format development at Norway’s NRK, calls the “big idea.” Listing the criteria he uses to assess a format, Hedemann says, “I need to understand immediately why a show is unique and universal, how it’s scalable and how it can be exploited on NRK’s different platforms.” Creatively, he is looking for content that tackles national topics and has the potential to “get the nation talking…. And we always ask ourselves why we, at NRK, should produce this show, and what audience need it addresses.”

Hedemann says game shows tend not to tick the boxes of NRK’s public-service remit. Genre-wise, a more likely bet is social-experiment reality and formatted documentary series, particularly if they are mobile- or online-first. In fact, don’t bother to pitch linear-only concepts to NRK. “Brave ideas,” however, are always welcome. As to where Hedemann scouts for the “fun, creative and modern formats” that work best for NRK, he says he prefers to shop with the smaller distributors over the big, consolidated suppliers. “Consolidation seems to stand in the way of local creativity, unfortunately,” he observes.

Hedemann defines his ideal format as “a strong, ruling, modern, entertaining and interesting premise at the heart of a media project that can be exploited 360 degrees”—a description that will surely resonate with many format buyers as they struggle to balance risk and reward in an increasingly fragmented market.

As the world becomes ever more precarious, and old certainties—and political orders—crash and burn, people are seeking clarity and credibility in their entertainment, RTL’s Graf suggests. They want obvious protagonists and antagonists. They want authentic emotion. They want, in short, to know where they are. This return to basics may explain the resurgence of shiny-floor entertainment formats, with their warm, upbeat, aspirational messages. One of the year’s stand-out successes, NBC’s The Wall, is a prime example of the feel-good phenomenon. “It’s not enough to have the nice content vessel of a game show,” Graf says. “It has to deal with existential needs in a credible way, especially in prime time.”

Pictured: BBC Worldwide’s Stupid Man, Smart Phone.