Laura Burrell, Viacom International Studios’ head of formats, talks to TV Formats about the importance of serving audiences on a local level, the impact of SVODs and staying ahead of the curve.
With hits like Ex on the Beach and Lip Sync Battle notching up local versions all over the world, Viacom International Studios (VIS) is going from strength to strength with its format slate.
TV FORMATS: What’s guiding the format strategy at Viacom International Studios?
BURRELL: There are two key areas of focus driving our formats strategy in 2019. Firstly, our commitment to unearthing local formats that have the power to entertain global audiences. Looking back to when I first joined Viacom International Studios in 2009, channels were mostly driven by U.S. content from our domestic pipeline. Now it’s completely different. In ten years, VIS has become a truly universal distribution business, with a portfolio brimming with formats from around the world that have a proven power to entertain global audiences on a local level.
Standout hits include MTV International’s Ex on the Beach, commissioned out of the U.K. (with 13 local adaptations worldwide), and Paramount Network U.S.’s Lip Sync Battle (23 countries worldwide). With exciting new titles recently joining our format slate, including Nickelodeon Benelux’s The Viral Factory and MTV International commission True Love or True Lies?, we are better equipped than ever to serve global audiences, and build on our rich history of standout formats spanning our brand pack.
Our second key focus is the impact of SVOD, which has significantly changed the rules when it comes to creativity, consumption habits and expectations. Creators have far greater freedom to try different things without being fixed to time slots, episode lengths and audiences. SVOD has provided an alternative new home for braver, edgier formats, creating new opportunities for existing series, including MTV’s Just Tattoo of Us and Comedy Central’s Drunk History, which have the potential to thrive in this environment.
Staying ahead of the curve of these developments has enabled us to quadruple the revenue that we’ve made from third-party format licensing in the last five years. It’s very much a changed world.
TV FORMATS: How has the growth of the larger Viacom group bolstered the format slate?
BURRELL: As Viacom’s global footprint has grown in recent years, so too has our format library. Not only have we grown our core brands like MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Comedy Central, but we’ve deepened our presence in key markets through the acquisitions of free-to-air channels—Telefe in Argentina and Channel 5 in the U.K; and more recently, U.S.-based, leading multimedia network for Gen Z, Awesomeness TV.
These moves have breathed new life into our portfolio, significantly broadening our catalog of titles, spanning a range of exciting new genres that we’ve traditionally been less known for. For example, Telefe has a fantastic slate of scripted dramas, comedies and telenovelas. Channel 5’s Elephant House Studios is renowned for its quality factual and fact-ent output. And AwesomenessTV squarely targets today’s hyper-connected teen audience with its exciting scripted drama slate. Following these significant acquisitions, we’re immensely proud to now have a catalog that spans all major genres and look forward to introducing our partners to new scripted titles, such as Sleep Tight.
TV FORMATS: What makes a Viacom format stand out?
BURRELL: VIS has a rich history of delivering high-quality, highly compelling, innovative formats that have a simple concept, with a clear structure and clearly defined production elements. In order to stand out from the crowd, it is essential that we target our audience carefully. We never try to be everything to everyone. We focus on who our audience is, what they’re looking for and where they watch their content.
We also embrace our brand USPs. With MTV, we can dare to be edgy, provocative, irreverent. With Nickelodeon, we are playful, entertaining and educational. At Comedy Central, we’re all kinds of funny. If you give all of those factors due diligence, the result is a highly distinctive, highly compelling VIS format with a unique power to cross borders and drive conversation and culture.
TV FORMATS: Which markets are you keeping an eye on?
BURRELL: Looking ahead at 2019, exciting markets to watch include Russia and Asia following the success of locally produced versions of Ex on the Beach, Lip Sync Battle and 16 and Pregnant. We’re certainly enthusiastic to do more in these markets.
Northern and Western Europe continues to be an exciting area of growth for our business, with the majority of markets embracing our standout MTV reality titles. Furthermore, with the addition of U.K.-based production arm Elephant House Studios, there is even greater potential to bolster our factual-entertainment content slate, including commissions like Tribal Teens.
Finally, we have seen significant growth in the Latin American market in recent years, particularly since acquiring Telefe in 2016. Our studio business in the market has also grown exponentially following the launch of the Miami studios, the Telefe Studios, as well as a recently acquired stake in YouTube short-form content creator Porta dos Fundos—which collectively form part of Viacom International Studios.
Our local channels in the market have also demonstrated highly innovative commissioning and distribution models. For example, Comedy Central partnered with TV Azteca to co-produce Lip Sync México, with Comedy Central Latin America given the first window and TV Azteca the second. That same model has since been replicated on a number of different formats.