Viacom International Studios Targets Social Issues, Diversity & Inclusion

Laura Burrell, head of formats at Viacom International Studios, talks to TV Formats about the company’s format catalog, which includes such global hits as 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Ex on the Beach.

The format catalog from Viacom International Studios (VIS) contains a number of titles that may seem cheeky and salacious on the surface—16 and Pregnant and Ex on the Beach among them—but at their core have deeper themes that touch on societal issues and feature the type of inclusive casting that very much needs to be seen on screen.

16 and Pregnant, for example, launched on MTV in the U.S. in summer 2009 and was one of the first reality shows to tackle the issue of teen pregnancy. The show quickly became a hit, successfully shining a light on the harsh realities of being a teenage mom in an authentic way that resonated with MTV’s young viewers. Teen Mom followed shortly thereafter, focusing on a group of cast members and their families from the original series and the challenges they faced. This gave way to Teen Mom OG and Teen Mom: Young & Pregnant.

“What unites the four are the recurring themes of navigating unexpected motherhood, support (or lack of it) from the father or their families, and the impact on their relationships and everyday lives,” says Laura Burrell, head of formats at Viacom International Studios.

“Fast forward to today, and the series continues to shine a stark light on new challenges as their kids have grown older,” she adds. “For example, having another child with a different partner and the pressures of fame while bringing up a young family.”

The format 16 and Pregnant (or in its Teen Mom guise) has been adapted in eight territories, including the U.K., Italy, Russia, Australia and South Africa, and many of these have spawned multiple seasons and ongoing productions. Each local version has stayed true to the original format while allowing for different cultural or socioeconomic conditions. The South African version, for example, is produced in conjunction with MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation***Image*** and raised awareness of HIV, featuring a young mother whose partner was HIV positive.

“One of the enduring appeals of the format is the way that it allows for a number of social and topical issues to be explored in an honest and authentic way under the overarching theme of young motherhood,” says Burrell.

The U.K. version, now in its sixth season, is a resounding success for MTV. The Russian treatment has proven popular for Channel U, which is launching the second season this spring.

Are You the One? and Ex on the Beach are two of VIS’s biggest dating franchises, with multiple seasons produced in a host of territories. “While both started by featuring a traditional heterosexual cast, over the years the casting has become more diverse and inclusive,” Burrell points out. “Incidentally, the most recent season of Are You the One? in the U.S. broke new ground by having all the contestants identify as sexually fluid. This changed the dynamic of the game because anyone in the villa could be a ‘perfect match’ for anyone else, rather than just girl/boy couples.”

Ex on the Beach has also evolved in its casting approach. Contestants who are gay, bisexual, trans or drag queens, of all different ethnicities and ages, have featured in the various local versions, and “audiences around the world have embraced this inclusive casting,” Burrell says.

Similarly, True Love or True Lies? and Finding Prince Charming have diversity rooted in their core DNA. Finding Prince Charming, which premiered on Logo TV in fall 2016, was the first fully same-sex dating show. The inaugural international adaptation recently launched in Germany on RTL’s SVOD service TVNOW, with its strong performance earning it a second-season commission and a coveted Grimme-Preis 2020 award. “We anticipate that this success will only help to drive new sales of the format,” says Burrell.

True Love or Trues Lies? is a competitive reality show that poses the question: What makes the perfect couple? Diversity is fundamental to how the game works, as the real couples must work out who the pretend couples are among them—a task that becomes even more difficult when couples seem an unlikely match on the surface. “Questioning common preconceptions about gender, disability, age gaps, religion and race, this highly addictive format was a game-changer for MTV UK when it launched in the summer of 2018,” Burrell explains. “Critically praised for its inclusion, it attracted new audiences to the channel, over-delivering in its target audience.”

New to the catalog, the Comedy Central format Gods of the Game pits everyday “mortals” against sporting “gods” in fantastical versions of the gods’ sports. The format features a number of sporting legends, including Paralympic champion Hannah Cockcroft and British track star Mo Farah. “Spanning all ages, shapes and sizes, the irreverent format uses inclusive casting to empower audiences and prove that anyone can take part, enjoy sport and (potentially) beat an Olympic champion!” says Burrell.

“VIS has a proven ability of creating powerful and entertaining content that speaks to kids and young adults in a way that few others can,” she adds. “From the pioneering days of The Real World and later 16 and Pregnant and Catfish: The TV Show, these formats resonate with young audiences around the world because they shine a light on the social issues affecting them in a non-judgmental and entertaining way. The Real World was one of the first platforms to enable young adults to discuss a broad range of issues from religion, race, and class, to HIV, pregnancy and coming out. Our recent global deal with Facebook Watch for new seasons only demonstrates that the format is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.”

A more recent example is the investigative series Ghosted: Love Gone Missing, which explores the phenomenon of “ghosting” and helps people reconnect with their loved ones, giving them a chance of resolution. The series launched in the U.S. on MTV last summer, and VIS is in the process of negotiating multiple option deals in international markets.

At the younger end of the age spectrum, there’s Nickelodeon’s Dream Rooms, an aspirational format that sees kids nominate deserving best friends to have their bedroom redecorated. “The original Dutch series was able to successfully highlight social issues facing kids today,” Burrell says. “For example, one child was nominated because he is a carer for his disabled mother.”

These formats and the topics they touch on help to reflect the audiences watching them in all their diverse glory.