Universal Stories Drive BBC Studios’ Scripted Formats

Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Studios, talks to TV Formats about what gives the scripted formats on the company’s slate their international appeal.

As month after month has elapsed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, audiences have never been in more need of entertainment that doesn’t require leaving the house and that offers a degree of familiarity. And broadcasters were ever more hungry for established winners over new titles with promise. Formats, be they unscripted or scripted, were often the answer for both families in their living rooms and those setting the channel schedules and boosting the slates of streamers.

“In the scripted space, there has been an uplift in format commissions being greenlit as a result of broadcasters and platforms looking for proven successes in this area, with stories that can resonate on a global scale combined with the benefits of shorter development times from paper to screen,” says Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Studios.

There is, according to Connock, a formula for these proven global successes: “The key lies in universal stories with broad appeal that can be easily adapted so that they feel totally at home in the local territory. It’s stories with a strong, identifiable core DNA that can be transplanted to comfortably sit in a brand-new set of surroundings—so you hold onto that core DNA but you allow the local producers the flexibility to adapt.”

“Each one of our scripted formats—from Doctor Foster to Luther to Criminal Justice—has big, bold characters, whether it’s an inept office manager, a woman betrayed by her adulterous husband or a young man accused of a crime he didn’t commit,” adds Connock. “When you add the fact that they have been expertly created and honed by some of the best writers in the world—you have scripted formats with a fantastic pedigree.”

The crime-drama genre is always in-demand, Connock notes, pointing to the success of Criminal Justice, which debuted in India on Disney+ Hotstar and was in the top five dramas of the year across all platforms in 2020. The series has also been licensed to Studio M in Korea. Luther, another crime drama in BBC Studios’ formats slate, is being produced in France for TF1 and in India with Applause Entertainment.

Dramas with strong female leads are also popular, according to Connock. The Indian adaptation of Doctor Foster, Out of Love, is in its second season. The format has been licensed in France, Turkey and Russia as well. In South Korea, the local version, World of the Married, became the highest-rated cable drama of all time.

The Split, another female-led story, has been licensed to JTBC in Korea and in Turkey, where MF Yapim is producing for Fox TV. “The Split is set in the fast-paced world of the divorce circuit and provides the backdrop to the story of three sisters,” says Connock, who adds that both Doctor Foster and The Split “are highly relatable and universal as they explore the complex world of relationships at work and at home.”

Life is a newer title on BBC Studios’ format slate, from writer Mike Bartlett and produced by Drama Republic, both of which were behind Doctor Foster. “It simultaneously follows the stories of a number of characters at a turning point in their lives, living in the same building, and their worlds end up colliding in unexpected ways,” explains Connock. “It also explores the concept of living in a city—a place where there should be a greater sense of community, yet it can feel like the loneliest place in the world. This echoes true on a global scale.”

Drama is not the only genre in scripted formats that stands a chance to travel the international marketplace, especially these days, according to Connock. “I think because of the nature of where we’re at in the world given the past 12 months, there is definitely a desire to have more fun in our lives, and that has absolutely been reflected in the demand for comedy formats, which is an area we will see grow over the next 12 months,” she says. “We’re already doing local adaptations of Miranda, This Country and Ghostsin the U.S., and there are a number of active discussions around The Office.

Ghosts is a completely warm, joyous scripted format that works on multiple levels and therefore lends itself extremely well to co-viewing,” Connock adds. “Similarly, our scripted comedy formats such as The Office, This Country, Miranda and Uncle follow the lives of some brilliantly crafted, hapless but loveable comedy characters.

As for the debate between streaming platforms and linear broadcasters and what’s selling best to which, Connock points out that scripted formats have long been front-and-center on streamers. “Let’s not forget that Netflix’s first original drama was, in fact, a remake of House of Cards, which was created originally for the BBC back in the early ’90s,” she says. “But what streamers want is instant recognition, whether that be a brand name or talent—both on- and off-screen—as they are hugely marketable assets. In that sense, there is absolutely more scope for scripted formats. However, this doesn’t mean it will compete with the work we do with linear broadcasters—it’s just an additional avenue of licensing.”

Connock further notes that localized scripted formats can drive additional interest in the original versions of a format, which can also land on a digital platform.

The success of scripted formats shows no signs of slowing as Connock looks ahead, considering how much speedier the process is to bring them to the screen compared to fresher concepts. “We all know how long it takes to get an original drama off the ground, but with a scripted format, it’s already been through that long process of development and so can be adapted to suit a local market at a much faster pace but still allows the flexibility to add those local nuances,” Connock explains. “It also has the benefit of being able to actually start shooting extremely quickly once greenlit.”

She adds, “These benefits of speed from paper to screen have been magnified at a time when broadcasters have been hit with significant gaps in their schedules created by having to put new original dramas on pause due to Covid-19.”