Stephen Lambert

Gogglebox has been on a global tear since its Channel 4 premiere in the U.K. in 2013. One of the few breakout format hits of the last few years, the show—which chronicles people watching and talking about television—has been adapted in the U.S., Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, the Middle East and Mongolia, among other territories. The format hails from Studio Lambert, the prolific trans-Atlantic production outfit founded by Stephen Lambert with all3media. Lambert, whose long list of credits also includes Faking It, Wife Swap and Undercover Boss, tells TV Formats about the keys to Gogglebox’s success and his approach to casting, and reveals details about some of Studio Lambert’s new creations.

TV FORMATS: Tell us about how the concept for Gogglebox originated. Why do you think it translates so well around the world?
LAMBERT: Our team came up with it, in particular producer Tania Alexander and Tim Harcourt, our creative director. It’s a great way to show the best of television that week. There’s so much TV out there and people miss things, so if you watch Gogglebox, you’ll get to see what everybody’s talking about. Everyone can join in on the national conversation, and what people talk about is what’s on television. It’s not just a clip show; it’s also a way of getting to know a cast of very likable people that reflect social diversity in terms of class, age, geography. In that sense, once people start watching Gogglebox, they identify with and feel good about their nation.

The real challenge of that show is its comedic element, and that you’ve got to make it very quickly. You only have a week to produce the show to keep it timely. The teams that make it all over the world do a brilliant job. You are filming all over the country. It’s very important that people are filmed in their own homes. One of the things we quite appreciate is how intimate it is to film people in their sitting rooms with the people they feel closest to and most relaxed with, talking and watching tele­vision. It feels like you’re at the heart of a very intimate moment in people’s families. They speak with authenticity and honesty. Obviously, as they get more well known, there’s a danger they start playing to the camera, but we cut all that out.

TV FORMATS: How do you approach casting Gogglebox?
LAMBERT: Casting is very important for all kinds of shows. In Gogglebox, we deliberately didn’t want to find people who wanted to be on television. Certainly in Britain, we’ve never advertised for people to be on the show; we’ve worked out the kinds of people we’d like to have on the show. For example, it would be good to get a North London Jewish family, so we have teams that go to the Waitrose [an upscale supermarket] in Golders Green [an area of North London that is home to a Jewish community] and start talking to people and asking people for recommendations. We wanted some retirees from the north, so we went around the bridge clubs in Liverpool until we found Leon and June [an elderly couple who were favorites on the Channel 4 version of the show. Leon passed away in late December]. It’s more of a documentary sensibility. On the whole, if you’re making documentaries, you don’t advertise for people to be in them; you find a subject matter that you’re interested in and then you find people who you think will be good in it and you persuade them to be in it. That’s the kind of approach we’ve taken with Gogglebox and quite a few of our other shows.

TV FORMATS: How long does it take for the people on Gogglebox to forget about the cameras?
LAMBERT: Part of the casting process is to find people who you think will be good at doing this. People find it pretty easy to do because it’s such a natural thing just to sit there and start talking with your family. Nobody from production is in the room. We have a couple of cameras that are controlled from another room, one essentially getting a wide shot and the other a tight shot. If we weren’t there, it wouldn’t feel very different for them. So in that sense, it’s quite easy for them to get relaxed.

I was amazed by how good the Lebanese version of Gogglebox was that was shown around the Middle East. It was beautifully done. I thought it was going to be very difficult to make it in the Middle East, for all kinds of reasons. I’ve also been delighted by how well Endemol Shine Australia has been making Gogglebox. That’s probably the one that’s closest to the British one, but it’s different in its Australianness.

TV FORMATS: What about on Undercover Boss?
LAMBERT: That’s harder. Obviously you have to persuade the people that this person who is actually the boss of their company has a legitimate reason for working on the front line alongside them. As the series goes on, you have to come up with more elaborate ruses to do that. One of the things we’ll often do and then cut out is we’ll have two people working alongside [the participant], one after the other, and we’ll have a host as well. We’ll say, this is a competition show and you have to judge between these two people. We’ll cut all that out, but we use it as a way of ensuring people don’t think it’s Undercover Boss. Occasionally people do realize it’s Undercover Boss, but we’ll often feature that in the program. The absolute truth is that it’s a real surprise to them when they discover what’s happening.

We are launching a show featuring celebrities going undercover into their industry. It’s great because the people that our celebrities are working alongside are the undiscovered talents in their world. They’re up-and-coming singers or athletes or chefs. They often talk about [the actual celebrities] while we’re filming: “And my real hero is X,” and X is the person they’re working alongside! We have to have very elaborate disguises because they are so well known, of course. When [the aspiring participants] discover what they’ve been doing, they are blown away.

TV FORMATS: Undercover Boss premiered on CBS just as the U.S. was recovering from the 2008 recession. How are you and your team brainstorming ideas that reflect what’s happening in society today?
LAMBERT: There’s no magical science to it. You do spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that we’re all talking about. We have quite a few shows that are [variations] on that Gogglebox way of getting groups of people to comment on something, as opposed to experts. It’s harder to launch a new show with an expert as the host than it used to be. I think people are a little bit tired of that. So we’re developing a new show where it’s a crowd advising people on what clothes to wear for a fashion show. We’re doing a show where it’s a group of people around the country watching videos of parenting problems. It reflects a lot about the way in which we live our lives. We rely on social media and lots of different viewpoints, synthesizing what we want to draw from those views. We’ve got quite a few shows where we’re riffing on that. We also do a lot of things that feel like they’re picking up on the power of the internet. We’ve got two, maybe three big drama series that all have the internet at their heart. And we’ve got a big new reality show we’re working on that, again, has the internet [as its focus]. The fact that we’re living with it as such a big part of our lives, in all its different ways, is a constant source of inspiration for us.

TV FORMATS: Your new show Catch Me Out, piloted by the BBC, is being formatted in Thailand before its U.K. launch. What support can your teams provide?
LAMBERT: We’ve made the pilot, and BBC said it’s fine if Workpoint goes into production first. They will learn things as a result of making it that I’m sure will be helpful to us, and we’ll pass on a lot of what we learned from making the pilot. Pretty much everywhere in the world, people are expressing interest in the idea to all3media international. Everybody is looking for a new take on how to do the variety show.

TV FORMATS: How is the commissioning climate for producers in the U.K. and the U.S. today?
LAMBERT: Everybody needs shows, so in that sense it feels good as a producer of content and a company that comes up with ideas. There are a lot of buyers who want good ideas. It’s tricky with some of the global streamers who want to take worldwide rights because our model has always been to make the British version and then sell the format rights around the world. We always make the American version ourselves, because we’re a British-American company. In one respect, it’s lovely if a streamer wants to take your show because often they will resource it quite well. But they don’t give you the possibility of a massive upside if it becomes a global hit. We made quite a big decision recently to concentrate on fewer but bigger shows. There are two very big unscripted shows we’re putting together for [this] year. In some ways with the very big shows, there’s slightly less competition—it’s hard to persuade networks to commit. But if you get some headway and they start to fall in love with something, then eventually they will order it. It’s very exciting when that happens. It’s also true that fewer production companies aim for the massive shows. That was a strategic decision that we made that may or may not be paying off! [Laughs] We also made a big move into scripted. [The Feed was ordered to series by Amazon and Liberty Global.]

Plus, we have several new shows launching through all3media international. These include Celebrity Undercover, plus Buy It Now, our new studio game show [where] the product pitch turns into an entertainment performance. We have a few animal documentaries in the catalog, so we’ve transferred that approach to the formattable with Nightmare Pets SOS. And a show that taps into the global approach to small is beautiful in the food and drink world is Best in Shop.