Laura Burrell, VP of international formats at ViacomCBS International Studios (VIS), tells TV Formats about the opportunities the company’s new streamlined structure brings to its format business.
VIS recently unveiled a unified global sales unit that places the company’s international program sales division, which previously focused on tape and format sales for network-branded content outside Latin America, together with VIS’s sales division, which previously focused on the studio’s original content. Within the new structure, Burrell was promoted to VP of international formats, overseeing an increased portfolio that now includes all scripted and non-scripted titles, including those from Telefe, AwesomenessTV and Ananey.
TV FORMATS: What does the new unified sales structure at VIS mean for the overall format business and your remit?
BURRELL: The unified sales structure allows us to create a fully integrated format catalog, a proper one-stop-shop. The format catalog will now be divided into non-scripted and scripted, regardless of the source of the format. Under the old structure, for example, if a client was interested in a VIS Americas scripted title—perhaps from Telefe or anything produced out of Latin America—they would need to speak to a separate sales team. That’s not the case anymore. Whether a format originates from one of our channel brands like MTV or Comedy Central or whether it comes from a production arm like Ananey in Israel or VIS U.K. or was developed by our studio, it’s all going to sit under one roof, under my remit. This represents a great opportunity for us to grow the business. We’ll have better efficiencies, greater flexibility and a broader offering for our global partners and clients.
In terms of the scripted library, the Latin American content is a fantastic library to build from. It’s going to be a priority to build up the scripted library, using that as the basis. VIS Americas is already recognized as one of the leading suppliers of scripted content; they’ve got a fantastic library of translatable telenovelas, super series and comedy-dramas such as 100 Days to Fall in Love and Victoria Small. We’ll be combining that library with fiction titles from our other brands. AwesomenessTV, for example, has some fantastic teen dramas such as Zac & Mia and Light as a Feather. Ananey in Israel is now fully part of the ViacomCBS family, and they have a great track record with shows like Greenhouse Academy. There are also scripted titles from some of our brands like Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon, as well as everything we’re developing in the studio. It’s going to be exciting to combine that all under one roof for the first time.
TV FORMATS: What’s your view on the overall state and health of the format business at present?
BURRELL: No one doubts it has been a tough year. We couldn’t have foreseen the pandemic or what effect it would have. Thinking back to the beginning of the year, when production was halted across the world and ad revenues plunged, it was pretty bleak. But I do think the industry is bouncing back. Non-scripted formats have been quicker on the mark than scripted. It’s great to see big prime-time studio entertainment shows back on our screens, even if they are in a modified form. It’s a classic example of how you don’t miss something until it’s gone. Any production right now comes with inherent risk; we have to accept that. The industry has learned ways to adapt. We have continued licensing our formats throughout this difficult period; the business has kept going. We’ve had to be a bit more flexible with production deadlines and episode counts, but the business has continued, and that’s a really encouraging sign. We’re bouncing back; we’re some way off full health, but it’s a creative industry and creative industries find ways forward.
TV FORMATS: From the VIS slate, what are some of the formats that have come up with innovative production methods to produce amid new health and safety protocols?
BURRELL: We’ve adopted a number of protocols either for our own productions or we support our licensees using them. For example, for our house-based reality shows that are shot on-location, creating a production bubble has been crucial. It’s really worked for us. By doing that, we’ve had local adaptations of Ex on the Beach, Are You the One? and Finding Prince Charming manage to go ahead and record under restrictions. These productions were completed on schedule, despite the restrictions. We’ve also managed to incorporate the use of remote shooting into a number of our formats. Ghosted, an investigative show that looks into stories of ghosting, has been shot almost entirely remotely for its second season. The contributors are recorded on Zoom and Skype or we send them equipment for them to self-shoot. We also did that on a new format, Served! With Jade Thirlwall. It was all shot during lockdown. We gave her housemates a tutorial on how to shoot and sent them equipment, and they shot the whole thing themselves.
For studio shows, we’ve had to reimagine set designs and environments. One of the new titles we’ve been pitching is Guessable, which launched on Comedy Central U.K. in October. It’s a studio-based show, with guessing games and two celebrity teams. What I love about that show is when you look at the set, it’s so well designed it’s not really obvious that it’s shot under COVID-19 conditions with strict social distancing. It’s really well-done; you wouldn’t know you were watching a show that had been shot that way. We’ve adopted all of those measures, and it’s fair to say our channels were really innovative during the pandemic. Balcony Stories made a lot of waves when it aired across our channels. It was a really clever use of user-generated content from around the world. MTV Unplugged at Home was a great way of taking what should be a big studio production and turning it into an intimate moment for artists to connect with their fans. We’ve seen a lot of innovation and changes to protocols.
TV FORMATS: As you look ahead at 2021, what are some of the opportunities you see in the format space?
BURRELL: In the scripted arena, I think we’re going to see increased opportunity for the slate that’s coming out of VIS Americas. Something like Victoria Small, for example, which was recently nominated for an International Emmy, is starting to gain traction with scripted buyers across numerous markets. We have a dark comedy thriller called R, which VIS co-produced with Pantaya in the Hispanic U.S. market and Clara Video in Mexico. There are some strong dramas coming out of that division. We think Asia is going to be a growth market as well on the scripted side. We’re working really hard with our local team there to open up new opportunities.
On the non-scripted side, we’re blessed with a fantastic reality slate already, but what I think we’re going to see next year and beyond is more opportunity for titles that embrace diversity and inclusion—this applies to our scripted titles as well. ViacomCBS Networks International recently announced a “No Diversity, No Commission” policy, which confirms our commitment in this area. There is a sea-change happening already internationally. We sold the gay dating show Finding Prince Charming last year to Germany’s TVNOW. That’s done really well. A second season is already on air. We’ll be announcing a second European territory shortly. That’s one to watch, along with our competitive reality format True Love or True Lies, which has diversity at its heart. That’s also going to be getting a European adaptation next year. The market for those formats that embrace diversity and inclusion is starting to widen, and we’ll see that even more next year.
All opportunity has to be tempered by the reality of coronavirus and its effect on production, which is going to last well into 2021. We have to accept that we’re going to have to live with instances of productions being halted or postponed, schedules rejigged and budgets squeezed. You’ve got to accept that that’s the reality we’re going to be in for some time. There are still reasons to be optimistic. The industry has adapted very quickly already, and being flexible and nimble will be key to navigating that landscape for the coming year. I believe our new structure will enable us to do that efficiently and effectively.