Staying Competitive

Producers and distributors weigh in on the innovative ways that competition shows are adapting to the new realities of social distancing and increased safety measures.

Competitions—from singing to cooking—have been one of the hottest format genres for quite some time, but gathering groups together for head-to-head battles is a bit tricky at the moment. Technology and creative filming techniques are helping to keep some productions going, and producers and distributors are pushing forward in innovative ways—sharing best practices along the way.

“At a time like this, a huge benefit to being part of a large global group is the shared learnings,” says James Townley, global head of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group. “Current guidelines around production are different nationally and regionally but there are commonalities, and teams around the world have been sharing experiences, ideas and best practices.”

“We have seen some incredible examples of creativity across all our territories,” says Rob Clark, director of global entertainment at Fremantle. “Our teams have adapted and innovated like never before to ensure we deliver our programs to our broadcasters and, crucially, the audiences at home. We’re really clear that our number one job is to be as adaptable, flexible and creative as possible to get our shows on air.”

Idols in Norway and Germany and Got Talent in Italy are but three examples of shows that all managed to complete their current seasons in the middle of lockdown. “The finale shows looked very different to the first shows, but they all still delivered pure moments of entertainment and escapism that audiences expect,” Clark adds. “We’ve also ensured that one of the biggest entertainment shows of all time, American Idol, remained on air. The first performance show of season 18 mirrored audiences at home and saw judges, contestants, backing singers and band all perform to an iPhone—120 iPhones to be exact—all edited and produced at home.”

In response to a demand for shared viewing in Israel, Keshet 12 recently rebooted the tent-pole legacy format Can’t Stop the Music 18 years after its original debut. “It’s a fun, singalong game show that is perfect for family viewing, and with some simple corona-friendly modifications—such as casting celebrities as panelists playing for charity and dispensing with the studio audience—it was quickly filmed and broadcast during lockdown, scoring the highest ratings on Israeli TV that week,” shares Kelly Wright, senior VP of distribution and new business at Keshet International.

“Internationally, we are seeing broadcasters trying to configure an online voting solution for talent and competition formats that require an in-studio vote,” she continues. “Here, we’re talking to them about Rising Star, which was built and designed for a nationwide digital vote using a bespoke app that allows everyone watching at home to participate and influence the competition. Rather than trying to adapt or create new technology for formats where app voting isn’t natural, Rising Star provides a proven turnkey solution because its format principles directly answer the needs raised by this global pandemic.”

An obstacle for some of the big shiny-floor talent shows has been the loss of the studio audience, but creative workarounds are being implemented. Big Brother in Israel, for one, is replacing the live audience with a remote one.

“We are taking steps such as incorporating more outside filming on shows such as MasterChef in Spain, and for the recent Big Brother launch in Portugal, housemates were tested and quarantined in hotel rooms prior to going into the house,” Endemol Shine’s Townley notes. “This offered a unique opportunity, as we filmed the quarantine period and made a two-week pre-launch spin-off show.”

Digital strategies are also playing a key part in the company’s talent and performance-based formats with such as Your Face Sounds Familiar and Operación Triunfo, where a multiplatform approach incorporating YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter has kept audiences engaged in Poland and Spain, respectively, while the show was off the air.

MasterChef Australia has been implementing social distancing measures across all facets of the production and additional hand-sanitizing stations are positioned around the set and offices. Changes have been made to the spacing of contestants’ cooking benches and gloves are provided for team challenges where equipment may be shared, as well as when handling food in the pantry. Additional sinks have been added as dedicated hand-washing stations, to separate from any food preparation. And judges step up to taste individually portioned meals, and no cutlery or plates are shared.

Beverley McGarvey, ViacomCBS Australia & New Zealand chief content officer and executive VP, says, “We are confident that these formats can still perform and perform well in the short-term future, while abiding by all the government guidelines. If you can remain nimble, flexible and creative you can still produce engaging and entertaining television.

“It is a new way of working and our production partners have done a phenomenal job adapting to ensure we can continue to bring Australian content to our audiences. We are seeing viewers responding extremely well to major shows that allow them to feel connected to the broader Australian community.”

Fremantle’s Clark agrees that the market is suggesting this genre “can and will come back.” He notes, “We’ve had interest from broadcasters on most continents about how you can reversion shows that typically would have an audience to become one without, plus we are already back in production in three of the hardest-hit countries in the world: The X Factor in Italy, Game of Talents in Spain and The Greatest Dancer in China will return relatively quickly to screens. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that when the pandemic has waned, we are likely to be faced with a global economic crisis—the one thing that can be produced safely, quickly and in a locked environment are studio shows, and we have had a lot of interest in our vast game-show catalog.”

Keshet International’s Wright is also looking ahead at the economic impact. She says, “We’re seeing broadcasters around the world struggle with how to bring these shows back, and also how to afford them—many are forecasting that the loss in ad revenues will extend throughout 2021 as well. The desire is there, but often the massive scope of production—from huge audition rallies to reliance on studio audiences—prevents these formats from meeting new health regulations. So for many formats, this genre will be tougher to bring back than others. However, certain formats—such as Rising Star and Master Class, the latter of which has a five-week production schedule even in regular times—can provide reliable scheduling solutions at these difficult times with proven international success.”

She says that production hiatuses on the big talent/competition formats are creating a vacuum and therefore an increased demand for “big entertainment” tapes. “Humorous, celebrity-led titles such as Greatest Celebrity Wind-Ups Ever! and Deal With It are receiving a lot of attention, as are shiny game shows with broad family appeal such as Tuesday’s Child’s Superstar Dogs.”

Clark is seeing interest on the production side for the repackaging of clips for “best of” shows, Got Talent in particular. “We’re well-placed to capitalize on sales of our biggest entertainment formats,” he says.

“I’m optimistic,” Clark adds of the state of the talent/competition arena. “It’s looking strong, if not stronger than ever. We produce most of the international versions of the most COVID-compliant format out there: The Masked Singer can be made with no audience, sees contestants kept in isolation and wearing masks throughout filming. Of course, as I said before, it’s the creativity and adaptability of our teams that’s put us in this strong position. Our three biggest formats—Idols, Got Talent and The X Factor—are all still in different stages of production throughout the world; that hasn’t changed. They will, of course, adapt and look a little different, but what’s certain is that in times of crisis people will want entertainment and escapism and they’ll want to come together to celebrate real people who can do extraordinary things.”