For My Next Trick: BBC Studios’ Sumi Connock

TBI has marked International Women’s Day (8 March) all week with its ‘For My Next Trick’ series, which finds a group of industry-leading women across production, commissioning and distribution reflecting on the advice that has shaped their career; innovation in their respective fields; diversity in TV; and the legacy of the #MeToo movement. We continue our series with BBC Studios’ creative director of formats Sumi Connock. 

At BBC Studios, Connock has global responsibility for a 200-format catalogue, including Dancing with the Stars, The Great Bake Off and Top Gear, alongside scripted formats Luther, Doctor Foster and The Office. Prior to joining BBC Studios, she was head of entertainment at ITV Studios in Manchester, responsible for Countdown, University Challenge, You’ve Been Framed!, and CBBC’s Top Class. In entertainment, Connock held roles as commissioning editor for entertainment at BBC Daytime. As an EP in BBC Entertainment, her credits included Just the Two of Us, The Big Finish with Graham Norton and Dear Father Christmas.

What piece of programming has most influenced your career and how you do your job?

Definitely Streetmate, the Channel 4 dating show. I started as assistant producer on the pilot for Tiger Aspect, and at the helm was Claudia Lloyd – a brilliant EP. She empowered and encouraged us all to be the best we could be. It was a team full of strong, creative and fun women, for the most part, at the start of our careers. Davina McCall hosted – her first prime time show for Channel 4.

Matilda Zoltowski was researcher (now EP on World of Dance for NBC). My fellow assistant producer was Izzie Pick, who has just done an amazing job delivering The Masked Singer for Fox. It was so special because Claudia masterminded a creative and supportive environment. Across three years and three seasons, from Koh Samui to Stoke-on-Trent, we learned from her about pushing boundaries whilst running a happy but hard-working team. Many of us are still in touch and have a friendship that will last a lifetime.

What’s something about your role that might surprise those outside the field?  

The paradox at the heart of all global format creation in TV is a simultaneous ocean of ideas, yet desert of true hits. Finding and developing a concept that will make the magical transition from powerpoint to zeitgeist-shifting breakthrough is far, far harder than people might realise. All over the world, development teams in superindies and broadcasters hunt perfect methodologies for creating a hit TV show, and some even claim to have found one. But the truth is different.

As screenwriter William Goldman famously said: “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” The transformative hit often comes from left field, from someone’s musings in a Copenhagen bathtub or a South Korean shopping mall. Who knew that ballroom dancing or amateur baking would become global phenomenons? And within 12 months, these shows can become a trope of cultural life in many countries. Making it happen is a fascinating, bemusing and often exciting challenge for our teams to grapple with.

What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve received on navigating the industry?

As Shonda Rhimes says: “There is one rule: there are no rules.” The best advice I was ever given is to just allow your team the freedom to make mistakes. It could sound ridiculous to be urging anarchy, but because we all want our shows to be the best that they can be, and in an incredibly competitive market, we need to stretch the creative envelope to destruction.  We only really learn as a result of looking at what’s gone before and by finding innovative ways to do it better next time.

You can see this sitting on your couch with BBC or Netflix: series two of an unscripted format is almost always better than the first series because of a learning curve. It’s difficult to do, but look more closely at some of the strongest unscripted formats over the past 5-10 years, and they are stronger because they have been nurtured, and allowed to learn, grow and evolve from season to season. Someone took a risk.

What are the most pressing challenges for international distributors in 2019? 

We operate in one of the most dynamic and competitive consumer markets on the planet. Compare TV formats to airlines, cosmetics or even tech products, and a TV show will live, thrive and die far faster. The achievability of overnight global hit status makes the competition between producers, platforms and distributors both ruthless and yet – and I would say this about my female colleagues – strangely mutually supportive.

We face a world of contradictions in other ways, too. Smartphones and laptops provide myriad options for audiences to consume, but people come together for the right show on linear TV  – maintaining its unique ability to drive the national conversation. Mothers and grandmothers in Rio or Kiev do not gather their family round a laptop for two hours on a Saturday night to watch a Facebook video, in the way that they do to watch Dancing with the Stars.

Where are the best entry points for young women looking to work in TV? What can they do to get a foot in the door in your particular field?  

I wouldn’t draw a gender distinction around entry points, and there shouldn’t be one. But for women to succeed in this demanding but captivating industry the skillset comes down to one thing: passion. You need to prove you actually are 100% driven by watching and making TV programmes. This is not a precinct for dilettantes.

Watch a lot of TV, and have constructive opinions.  In a creative world without objective truth, good taste and relentless optimism are vital.    None of us can guarantee the next hit, but we need people who share our passion and knowledge and have a thirst for learning. I can remember sitting in my parents’ house and writing letters to every television and radio production company in Manchester and London, just to get in the building. But when I did get the chance, I convinced the people interviewing me of one thing beyond doubt – I had watched, and had a view on, everything on TV. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about it taking 10,000 hours to become good at something – concert piano, inventing Microsoft – makes sense to me about TV.  I spent at least 10,000 hours watching 1980s Saturday night entertainment shows.

Is enough being done to improve on- and off-screen representation in TV?

It’s really noticeable – watching British TV – how much progress has been made in the past couple of years with a positive intervention on diversity. One by one, the sacred cows of a – historically – race and gender-biased culture are evaporating, and the fantastic thing is that the shows are getting more and more fun to watch because of it. I am proud that in both the UK and Denmark, Dancing with the Stars is hosted by two women. It’s an indictment of society that this could be fresh and new, when I grew up watching countless male double acts on TV.

We’ve also seen a rise in strong female-led dramas over the past couple of years – with shows like Doctor Foster, and compelling dramas Thirteen and Killing Eve, by the hugely talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge, all featured female protagonists.  But we are still a long way from being a true representation of the real world, or what Shonda Rhimes called “colorblind TV casting,” so let’s stick with it.

What innovation in TV – creative or otherwise – are you most excited about for the year ahead?

One of the best dimensions of the arrival of the big OTT platforms has been the ready availability of high quality non-English-language content on the global stage, and the bursting of any conceit that all great TV had to originate from London or Los Angeles. I enjoyed watching India’s Sacred Games on Netflix, and preferred the subtitled version to the dubbed one, because of the self-evident realism of people talking in their actual language. The Korean Life on Mars was brilliant, and obviously a revelatory re-imagining of the original Manchester streets of the 1970s which were replaced by Seoul in 1988.

I though the French Doctor Foster added emotional depth and rich cultural dimensions to the script which were only to its benefit as a format.  And even Narcos, the risk of potentially simplistic characterisation being to the fore, gained real cultural depth by being bilingual. We now have a TV-viewing public that are acclimatised to the idea that good stuff comes from everywhere, and I celebrate that.

What is the single greatest industry shift in 2019 that will change how business is done going ahead?

I think the Britbox project promises to be really interesting. For the BBC to be collaborating with ITV to deliver some commercial heft to the UK in the global TV market makes sense.  And if we see some of the depth of our combined libraries brought out into the mainstream, that’s great for cultural diversity. That said, we will always be open to seeing BBC material on the widest possible range of international channels and platforms.

Looking forward, what legacy will the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements leave within the world of TV?

It’s going to leave a huge legacy – not only will the movie industry never be the same again, but it has since transcended every work place, from football clubs to hair salons to science research labs. And again, the beauty is that this isn’t some regulatory box-ticking: this is a cultural phenomenon which offers only upside. It’s better for women in the workplace, better for young girls just starting out, better in fact for all the workers.

And it’s putting better shows on TV for my Mum, sitting at home in Cheshire. Of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, she came over from Malaysia in the 1960s and for decades she saw no non-white faces on TV, let alone someone of her heritage. Now there is proper cultural diversity even in the quintessentially English content like Coronation Street and Midsomer Murders. It makes TV truer, and also more interesting, plus my Mum’s enjoying it.

What’s the best piece of content (that isn’t yours) you’ve seen in the last six months?

The fascinating thing about TV is that the most gentle of alterations can completely reshape global fashion. Take Fox’s surprise smash hit The Masked Singer. I love that they took a risk on such a bonkers format; the panel, the guessing game, the way the packages were put together with bizarre security guards in shades. That theatre, the comical but heartfelt storytelling, the breadcrumbs trail of clues, the performances with retro backing dancers, the celebrities embracing masked personas and performing in a way we’ve never seen them before – I loved all it’s licence and rebellion. Who says you can’t do crazy 1980s crash zooms just before the reveal? Why shouldn’t the celeb take just slightly too long to take their mask off (to the chants of “Take if Off”), when we all know they could do it in half the time?

The joy, the blissful absence of the suffocating ‘life-changing record contract” at the end of it, the redemptive storyline of T-Pain, the man behind the Monster mask: I loved it all. Most of all, I loved that something different engaged audiences and proved creativity and risk work. We’re not accountants: we’re creatives, and let’s not forget it.

Catch up on all of this week’s For My Next Trick columns, featuring Endemol Shine International’s Cathy Payne and The Garden’s Ninder Billing, Fly On The Wall Entertainment’s Allison Grodner and TVF International’s Harriet Armston-Clarke.

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