Tuned to Travel

A range of distributors weigh in on the current state of the format market and what genres are trending.

While much of the buzz across the TV landscape as of late has been centered on scripted programming—notably the dizzying number of dramas and when “peak TV” may actually peak—unscripted entertainment has been steadily gathering steam. Format producers and distributors have had to up their game in the face of all this high-quality scripted fare, tasked with bringing to the market concepts that are fresh enough to engage audiences yet have the reliability broadcasters are looking for. That’s a tall order to fill, but it’s one that is bringing about a wave of creativity that’s invigorating the format business.

“Scripted has been the dominant segment for the last three to five years, but even in the past 12 months, there has been an increase in people focusing again on formats,” says Harry Gamsu, VP of non-scripted at Red Arrow Studios International. “The business is in a state of growth. We’re seeing a real demand from a lot of buyers right now for fresh new ideas.”

Lisa Perrin, the CEO of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group, agrees that while the drama bubble has yet to burst, “the format market is buoyant—people want to buy!”

She says, “It’s encouraging to see more entertainment and more entertainment formats coming into the market and succeeding. There is an appetite from broadcasters, not just in the linear space but in the SVOD space as well, to take risks. They are genuinely hunting for the next big hit, be it entertainment or factual.”

Nevertheless, many of the stalwart entertainment shows, some of which originated more than a decade ago, are still working well. The Endemol Shine catalog is home to a number of megahit formats, the likes of MasterChef and Big Brother, which continue to be recommissioned and shore up new markets, in addition to spawning successful spin-offs. “Our super brands are still immensely popular,” says Perrin. “Forty series of MasterChef aired last year in over 25 territories. MasterChef: The Professionals was BBC Two’s most popular program of 2017, beating drama and everything else. There is no doubt that people know what they like and they return to it.”

As longstanding entertainment behemoths, as well as high-profile scripted series, continue to hold onto prime-time slots on many channels around the globe, formats that can be broadcast across the week during daytime and access prime time have seen an uptick in commissioning. “Daily stripped shows are performing well,” says Izzet Pinto, founder and CEO of Global Agency, pointing to genres such as cooking and style as being in demand. “Shopping Monsters has been a big hit in many territories. Right now, our second style-based format, My Style Rocks, is also getting a lot of attention and is performing very well. In Romania, more than 200 episodes have been on air. In Greece, close to 100 episodes have aired, and now they are going for a second season. It will be starting in Mexico soon. For us, daily shows have been selling best in the last few years.

“For prime time, I always believe in talent shows,” Pinto continues. “But for a long time now, people have been looking for a big prime-time show with a good twist.” He believes The Remix, a live music reality show that pairs up DJs and singers to remix songs, has the right ingredients to deliver.

The format has been ordered by Amazon Prime Video as an original in India, where it is launching in March as a ten-episode show. “It has been the biggest production ever in India for a music talent show, not only quality-wise but also in terms of budget,” Pinto explains. “With the Indian version, we will relaunch the format at MIPTV. I’m optimistic that it will receive good interest because people have been looking for a new prime-time hit.”

Jin Woo Hwang, the head of formats and global content development at CJ E&M, also reports that interest in studio-based entertainment remains high around the globe. He has noticed, though, some differentiating factors between what was hot ten or so years ago in this space and what’s in demand today. The current trend is for shows that are “faster, lighter and easily recognizable,” according to Hwang.

CJ E&M has launched the music entertainment show Shadow Singer, which gives undiscovered vocalists the chance to shine under the guise of a celebrity clone. The company has also seen interest in Youn’s Kitchen, a reality entertainment series that features celebrities traveling to tourist destinations to open a restaurant, and Love at First Song, a hybrid music-dating show.

While the concepts of the three titles differ, “these formats possess a common denominator: empathy,” Hwang says. “Our efforts to differentiate familiar ideas by injecting empathic emotions—such as relaxation, enjoyment, good feelings and warmth—are not only providing a new approach for Korean viewers but also for international viewers, like with our format Better Late Than Never (Grandpas Over Flowers) on NBC.”

Similarly, Endemol Shine’s Perrin is seeing strong demand for shows that are more heartwarming in nature. “There’s a real sense that people want to feel good when they watch television—it’s palpable. There’s been a resurgence of feel-good TV, as people want to escape when they watch television nowadays.”

The company has seen a number of successful adaptations for the studio-based game show The Wall, which has aired in both access prime and prime time, including in the U.S. “Proof and point, that’s a feel-good entertainment show that does very well,” Perrin says. “That, for us, is brilliant. It’s played in different slots and is very adaptable. A lot of the formats that travel widely are the ones that have the ability to adapt and be scaled up or down in budget, as well as be played in different slots.”

From the Red Arrow catalog, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds is a feel-good format that has recently sold into a raft of territories, including France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia. The social experiment attempts to improve the health and well-being of elderly people in retirement communities by bringing them together with a group of preschool children.

On the back of the resounding worldwide success of its social-experiment format Married at First Sight, the company last year brought to the market Buying Blind. Like Married, Buying Blind watches as participants entrust a key life decision to experts—this time, it’s purchasing a home. “It’s our most successful new format in terms of commissions,” says Gamsu.

He acknowledges that certain types of formats—like dating, game shows and talent—are perennially popular, “but what we’re seeing now is an emergence of sub-genres, social experiments being one of those. There are themes like ‘young and old’ (Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds is an example of that) or the use of technology in formats (our new show Code to Love sees dating algorithms match people) or playing detective. You’ve got the big, broad, evergreen genres that are still very popular, but now there are more niche, specialist sub-genres happening within those.”

Overall, says Gamsu, “buyers want fresh ideas, but with a track record,” which is why social experiments and other shows that turn the dial up a notch on tried-and-tested concepts are working well. “As the EPG is getting more crowded and viewers have so many different places to go for content, the titles that are louder, noisier, can keep the viewers engaged and create their own buzz to stand out are hugely successful,” he adds. “The two camps are: the classic, old-school revival shows, which people love and feel warm toward because they know the brands, and the new, quirkier, ‘Oh my god, did you see last night’s episode?’ type of formats.” The latter is a bit harder to get buyers to take a chance on, though.

“Certain territories are always going to be more skeptical than others and will always want proof of concept before you take your format to them,” says Endemol Shine’s Perrin. The company recently launched the brand-new singing contest All Together Now on BBC One, and its success has led to some key sales. “It’s a big entertainment studio show, so God bless the BBC and God bless the U.K. for still taking a chance on paper formats for us to be able to launch shows there.”

All it takes is one country to successfully test a concept for others to quickly follow suit, triggering a domino effect. But how can producers and distributors get formats over that initial hurdle with risk-averse broadcasters?

“Nowadays, the parties that are the first on board will usually ask for IP share,” which would bring them a share in the profits as long as the format sells worldwide, says Global Agency’s Pinto. “Many companies are accepting it, even though for Global Agency it’s not our preferred way to work.”

Red Arrow, meanwhile, brings together the best ideas from its group of companies and third parties each year to identify the two or three early-stage concepts that it believes have the strongest potential for getting commissioned and picked up to series. “It is difficult trying to define that,” admits Gamsu. “We work very closely with production companies and channels in key launch markets; you have to look at where formats get launched and where people are willing to take a risk. It’s still Benelux, Scandinavia, Australia and the U.K.—this is where we focus most of our energy on bringing fresh, new ideas. We have ten U.S. companies also constantly pitching and getting commissions as well.”

Buyers playing it safe or requiring a track record presents a challenge, but so does simply getting noticed nowadays, says Gamsu. With so many ideas and established brands out there that broadcasters know can pull in an audience, it’s increasingly difficult to break through.

Endemol Shine’s Perrin has noticed that in the current marketplace, formats are also traveling at a slower rate. In the early days of MasterChef, a show that reached 50-plus territories was considered a big success, “now it’s more like 10 or 15 markets and that’s a hit,” she says. “You don’t get a reach like you used to that quickly anymore.”

“More formats are entering the market, but from the sheer amount of choice, many are failing to gain the international traction they did before,” Perrin continues. “Buyers are playing it slightly safe, revisiting old titles that they know. And also, with the SVODs coming into the market, everybody’s waiting to see how it’s going to work, what they’re going to go for and if it’s going to disrupt the format market like it did the drama market.”

Indeed, the entrance of digital players to the format fray is certain to shake things up as they dip their toes further into this space. “It’s a different model; instead of it being a slow global rollout, over multiple territories, you sell to a platform that will dispense your global hit potentially in one fell swoop, and people would be able to binge on it,” says Perrin. “I don’t think it’s going to be suitable for all types of formats, but it is for some.”

With global launches becoming more of a reality thanks to streaming platforms, CJ E&M’s Hwang is excited by the prospects of what he calls a “pan-worldwide format”—a single show done in multiple languages and aired around the world. He also sees opportunities on the horizon for more co-productions and co-developments to take place and for brand-led formats.

“People are looking for franchise brands,” notes Global Agency’s Pinto. “For that reason, I am optimistic about our format The Legend,” a singing talent show that lets the contestants decide their destinies.

Pinto is also optimistic about the outlook for the format business as a whole. “In major territories, there hasn’t been a drop in ad sales for TV, and now digital platforms are getting so big—when you add these two together, overall it makes the entertainment business stronger. That is one of the biggest advantages that the industry has right now.”