Cruel critiques and manufactured conflict have been replaced by supportive smiles, warm hugs and a belief that shows should seek to transform someone’s prospects or help them grow emotionally in an ongoing raft of caring sharing formats reports Andy Fry.
There was a time between 2003 and 2009 when factual and entertainment formats seemed to focus almost entirely on the darker side of human nature. While no one could question the popularity of shows like Big Brother, Wife Swap, Hell’s Kitchen and Holiday Showdown, all of them were guilty during this period of manufacturing conflict in pursuit of ratings. Mostly, they stayed on the right side of the ethical line, but occasionally a format was guilty of turning a blind eye to bullying and humiliation, earning a category of shows the rather unflattering epithet ‘car crash television’.
At the same time that the media was questioning the morality of such shows, there was a nasty streak running through more traditional entertainment genres. Talent show judges like Simon Cowell seemed particularly mean while quiz show hosts were praised for belittling contestants. One chat show host in the UK, Jeremy Kyle, even attracted the attention of the legal system, with Judge Alan Berg calling his show “human bear-baiting.”
This edginess has not disappeared from TV, but there has been a shift in the tone of the formats business over the last three to four years. Cruel critiques have mostly been replaced by supportive smiles, warm hugs and a belief that formats should seek to transform someone’s prospects or help them grow emotionally.
The formats business did not start out being brutal and bitchy with early shows such as Pop Stars and Survivor supportive of participants. The change came when the market became more competitive in the middle of the last decade and formats became tougher and more edgy to try and stand out.
“Things started getting really bad for people in about 2009 and haven’t improved in a lot of cases, so viewers started looking for more positive stories to take their mind off what was happening in their day-to-day lives. This doesn’t mean the tough stories have disappeared because there are always networks that need to shout to attract attention, but the overall mood is different.”
This shift is apparent in two ways. Firstly, in the emergence of new kinds of entertainment shows where the entire narrative arc is built around positive pay-offs such as rewards and rehabilitation. And secondly, in the tone of established entertainment genres such as talent, dating and quiz shows.
Spodsberg says: “The Voice, for example, brought about a shift in the way talent show judges relate to contestants. So at Banijay we decided to go a stage further with Mentor, a new show we launched at MIPCOM.”
In this case, says Spodsberg, it’s the mentors who face the chop if an act doesn’t do well. “It’s an idea that came from Thomas Blachman, who had been a controversial and outspoken judge on the Danish version of The X Factor for nine years. He decided it was time for the mentors to step up and take responsibility. If they don’t prepare the talent properly, they pay the price. We don’t have any of the public casting element you see in other shows. We just start with great performers. So it’s all about how they are prepared.”
The emphasis on personal responsibility resonates quite widely with recent trends in the format business. In the UK version FremantleMedia format The Apprentice, Alan Sugar now goes into business with his chosen contestant, rather than giving them a job within his organisation. In All3Media’s Undercover Boss, the head of the company learns tough truths about what it’s really like to be at the coalface of his or her business and is expected to change their behaviour accordingly. In Zodiak’s Secret Millionaire (above), society’s more fortunate citizens learn that poverty is not always the result of indolence or lack of ambition and are encouraged to help people get their lives back on track.
Secret Millionaire has played a key role in the emergence of formats with a social conscience, because it demonstrates that shows dealing with social morality can be ratings winners if constructed carefully and can also travel as formats. “The idea came about because Channel 4 wanted to talk about poverty in Britain,” says Barnaby Shingleton, head of entertainment at Zodiak Rights.
“If they’d done a documentary on poverty they’d have got an audience of about 1.5 million, but by turning the subject into an engaging narrative with human interest stories they got a show that put the same tough issues in front of four million people.”
The show has been remade in numerous markets including the US, Canada, Australia, the Nordic region and Germany, but it hasn’t always been an easy pitch, admits Shingleton. “Some broadcasters started with the misconception that the show is simply about rich people giving poor people money. But when they realise it is about the personal journey, and that the rewards don’t have to be financial, they tend to come round. In the end, it has proved to be a property that can also work well for commercial broadcasters such as ABC in the US, RTL in Germany and Nine in Australia.”
All3Media International is another distributor that has made formats with a conscience a key part of its portfolio: “I think there are more shows around that want people to feel good and that are designed to help them change in a positive way,” says managing director Louise Pedersen. “We’ve had Undercover Boss, Making Australia Happy and Village on a Diet in the last few years. And at MIP 2012, we picked up a You Deserve This House, in which a deserving person or couple is taken away for the weekend while a makeover team – including those that the homeowner has helped over the years – set out to transform their house.”
The evidence from the market suggests that formats with a conscience can work for any kind of channel although a public broadcaster might be the obvious fit.
“We’ve picked up a very interesting Channel 4 show called The Agency [above], in which Mary Portas helps people who have retired get back to work,” says Hat Trick International sales director Sarah Tong. “It’s a very formattable, engaging, character-based show that tackles the issues of ageism in employment. But because of its subject it’s more likely to work for pubcasters than youth-focused commercial channels.”
Nordic World sales chief Jan Salling is armed with similar shows: “I think buyers know what kind of shows they’re going to get from the Nordic countries,” he says. “Audiences here like formats that make a difference or have something we can all learn from, so they tend to have a strong public service feel to their narrative.”
Shows on Nordic World’s slate include Speedomania, which is about helping bad drivers change their ways; Bye Bye Bullying, which sees a celebrity go into a regular school to try and help stop bullying; and Dining With the Enemy, in which people from opposite sides of a conflict explore the potential for resolution over a meal. “They’re shows we’re really proud of because they do good and make a difference,” says Salling. “But they’re probably most suited to an established public broadcaster that doesn’t need to scream loudly to get noticed.”
That said, Salling stresses that shows like these can attract good ratings and generate a lot of attention in other media. “Bye Bye Bullying caused a lot of debate in the Nordic media. In that sense, it plays a similar role to shows like Jamie’s School Dinners. It gets people talking and alerts politicians to issues.”
Different in tone are shows that try to take a moral agenda into primetime commercial schedules. A good example is One Good Turn, created by Media Factory for Romania’s Prima TV and now distributed by Small World IFT.
“One Good Turn is a primetime show in which hidden cameras reveal how people behave when confronted with real life dilemmas,” says Small World IFT senior VP, format sales and development Luci Burnley. “The most courageous and honest people get cash prizes while studio hosts win points if they correctly predict the reactions of members of the public.”
A simple scenario might be ‘how many people would return the money to a shopkeeper that gave them too much change?’ “The beauty of the format is that it takes a genre we’re all familiar with, hidden camera, and gives it a new twist. So it’s having a positive impact on people’s lives but is still watchable television,” says Burnley.
In a similar vein is Red Arrow International’s You Deserve It! (above), a Dick De Rijk format in which contestants win money on behalf of a deserving person. Launched in the US in 2011, it has since been remade in markets including Spain, the Middle East, China, Vietnam and parts of Eastern Europe.
A key lesson from that show, according to Red Arrow International’s senior VP, format acquisitions and sales Henrik Pabst, is that “audiences are happy for people to win but they really want them to deserve it within the terms of the game. The game has still got to be competitive even if the idea is to give money away. Shows like The Biggest Loser work because the audience likes to see people rewarded if they have worked to achieve something”.
Pabst cites The Hundred Mile Challenge, a Canadian format in which families are challenged to source all their food locally, and The Undatables, a UK format which follows a group of disabled people who sign up to a dating agency as good examples of formats with a conscience. “For me, these are signs that we have been moving away from trash TV towards stories that focus on the issues faced by real people,” he says.
ITV Studios director of international formats Mike Beale has also seen a growth in socially responsible formats since the downturn started. “In the last year or two we’ve had The Audience [above, top], about a group of strangers helping someone sort out a problem in their lives; the return of Surprise Surprise, a classic reward format which is warm and fuzzy TV at its best; and Keeping the Nation Alive.”
Surprise Surprise (below) benefits from the fact that it has a proven track record, says Beale. “The show has a strong feel good factor. But it also benefits from the current trend towards tried and tested formats – particularly ones that have secured a recommission from their originating broadcasters. Another point worth making about the new version of Surprise Surprise is that there’s a much greater emphasis on rewards going to deserving people.”
Keeping the Nation Alive is a format from ITV-backed UK prodco The Garden that ITV Studios markets internationally. An insight into the tough day-to-day decisions that have to be made by national health systems, Beale says it represents an interesting new role for TV: “In difficult economic times, politics tends to get polarised into strong opinions from the right and left wing. So shows like these have a key role to play in helping people make their own decisions. There have been a number that provide viewers with an objective look at areas like health, education, welfare, immigration and the banking system.”
Intervention (below) is the granddaddy of the formats with a conscience. The A+E factual series in which addicts confront their darkest demons and are encouraged to find a route to redemption has been on the air in the US for eleven years. However, it has just ended, which doesn’t seem to fit with the growth in this category of programming.
Christian Murphy, senior VP, international programming and marketing, A+E Networks offers an explanation for the show’s withdrawal from US schedules: “When Intervention started in 2005, a lot more people in the US were feeling good about themselves. But as times got tougher people migrated towards shows which have a lighter touch – for example shows like Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty.”
Having said this, continues Murphy, Intervention has started to find a new lease of life outside the US, with Canada, Brazil and Mexico making local versions. “A+E in the US is an entertainment network, so the fact that Intervention may not feel right anymore doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work in other countries or for other kinds of networks. In some cases, you have countries that aren’t experiencing the same kind of downturn as the US. In others, you have countries that perhaps have only just opened up to the possibility of airing this kind of show.”
Murphy’s point is echoed by a number of his peers, who argue that formats with a conscience will only work if they gauge the audience reaction right. If they make viewers reflect too much on their own domestic problems, they’re likely to be a turn off. If they leave viewers resenting the show’s beneficiaries or questioning whether they really deserve to be rewarded they’re equally unappealing.
Maybe this is why a lot of broadcasters take the easier option of using established formats with celebrity guests and getting them to donate their winnings to a well-respected charity.
Is the move to less abrasive, more responsible formats a permanent change and where do people go if they want to see vile and vulgar television? Beale’s view is that “it’s probably cyclical. As people get a bit more comfortable I think we’ll see the return of edgier shows, maybe in about 2015 or 2016.”
Zodiak’s Shingleton agrees: “I think there are some cultural trends which are here to stay, for example the new openness to towards people with disabilities that has come about since the London 2012 Olympics. But in general I don’t think we’ve seen the end of formats that are short on conscience or morality.”
Some commentators believe that lowest common denominator content has just moved to different places. Pabst, for example, believes trashy TV has switched from factual entertainment to scripted reality. The benefit of this from a channel point of view is that they can show the same kind of sleazy behaviour as before without risking censure from media regulators.
Others suggest that car crash TV has found a more natural home in the unregulated world of the internet. “You can see so many people being ridiculed on platforms like YouTube that I think TV channels have had to go a different way,” says Spodsberg. “I think they’ve focused more on relatable characters with the result that audiences get closer to them and care about them more.”
THE FRONTLINE: NEW FORMATS WITH A CONSCIENCE
In Go Back to Where You Came From, SBS Australia confronted the issue of prejudice against migrants by sending six Australians on the reverse of journeys that refugees took to reach Australia. Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder sells it internationally.
In Nordic World’s U-Turn (above), people are helped to reduce their dependency on medication by making better lifestyle choices.
Dream Builders is a Banijay format in which homeless people are helped to convert an empty building into a home.
Why Don’t You Speak English? is a BBC Worldwide format in which first-generation immigrants live with a local family for a week in order to learn English. After a week, the roles are reversed.
ITVSGE is representing an Israeli show called My Dream Wedding in which a deserving young couple who can’t afford their dream wedding are helped to create it by their local community. In the US it is for TLC, having been developed by ITV Studios and Israel’s Reshet.
Optomen’s Great British Budget Menu (above) focuses on families struggling with food prices. Three chefs go into financially challenged households where they shop and cook on tight budgets.
Elsewhere, Small World IFT is distributing a Canadian format called Operation: Vacation, in which the most deserving members of the community are sent away to enjoy a surprise holidays by their friends and family.