Warm formats that allow for co-viewing have been centre-stage for broadcasters over many years, but are streamers affecting the ecosystem – and what are networks doing to evolve the genre? Jane Marlow delves into what’s next for the feel-good format.
It might feel like yesterday but Strictly Come Dancing launched on the UK’s BBC in 2004. The Great British Bake-Off is now in its 11th season on Channel 4. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire arrived on ITV in 1998, went away and returned 11 years later with a different head.
This kind of shelf-life is the Holy Grail for format makers but is the heat around so-called ‘warm formats’ still as fierce or is a new style of show muscling into schedules and onto streamers’ playlists?
Calling out for co-viewing
Mike Beale, MD at ITV Studios Global Creative Network, says the global appetite for escapism – which has only increased as the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world – coupled with a desire among linear broadcasters to offer audiences co-viewing opportunities means feel-good formats are still highly sought after globally.
“All we hear from buyers is warmth, heart and co-viewing,” says Beale. “The last [factor] being most important. How do you get a group coming together to watch together? That tends to lead to the show being warmer because you want to watch it with your eight-year-old.”
With Love Island launching on Amazon in France, president of Paris-based Pernel Media Samuel Kissous notes that the stronger trend in the industry is streamers’ increased interest in formats as a way of driving viewers to their platform.
“It’s not about whether [formats] are warm or not but can the format travel well onto platforms? Is there a certain level of interactively that can play well on platforms?” he says. With streamers throughout Europe looking to give their platforms a local identity, noisy formats like Love Island offer an opportunity to grab the attention of the under-35 demographic in a genre that is more cost-effective than most drama.
The need for younger audiences to form a relationship with mainstream channels and brands is key for their future success. With platforms such as Disney+ rolling out across Europe last month, Larry Bass, CEO at ShinAwiL in Ireland, says the competition for a share of the household’s wallet will continue to drive the demand for family-friendly formats.
“Co-watching is key to the success of Disney+,” he comments. “The big titles they’ll land with, such as Marvel, are big beasts of shows and at their heart they’re family viewing – not just aimed at young teens. That’s something that will grow.”
Bass suggests the big entertainment shows will continue to be the pillars of the schedule and that we’ll see fewer shows that are deeply negative in their approach. Talking about his company’s development process, he says the team is asked to reflect on what they and their family and friends are watching and why.
Warming things up
In turbulent times, it’s easy to see why shows that offer elements of escapism are still so popular. Just as the world has changed over the last decade, so those stalwart formats have evolved too. Richard McKerrow, creative director of Bake-Off producer Love Productions, says the secret to that format’s continued success is giving the show the same love and attention as you would a new series but implementing any tweaks “within the architecture of the building”.
He says they look at the show’s challenges each year and might slightly change the colour palate of the set, but ultimately the biggest changes in the show came between series one and two. Apart from the move from BBC to C4, it’s remained pretty constant.
“We look at people who review it and comment,” says McKerrow. “Last year the ratings were good and solid but there were a few critical reviews, which suggested it wasn’t as warm as it had been. That sort of thing as a team we take very seriously.”
His philosophy is that the best formats are ones that would happen even if the cameras weren’t there, which fits with a slate that includes Bake Off, Sewing Bee and The Great Pottery Throw Down. Regarding Bake Off’s recipe for success, McKerrow adds: “We were trying out judges and bakers and I realised the bakers cared more about what the judges thought of their cakes than they did about the camera being there. It made me smile inside and I thought there’s something here.”
Love Productions’ approach is to give its contributors a beneficial experience even if it’s sometimes difficult and tough, so in that sense the ‘warmth’ factor is less a trend than an ethos. Similarly, Gil Formats in Israel highlights its commitment to producing human stories in sensitive and compassionate ways. Their newest format, Laughing All The Way To The Bank, which has announced deals in Germany, Spain and Portugal with more to come, fits the bill.
“We wanted to have a reality talent competition but without the normal panel of judges and a competition that begins in audition or with a large number of contestants and a winner at the end of the season,” says CEO Assaf Gil. “We wanted to break that mechanism, so what we made was a very fast-paced, funny show.” The premise is that contestants ride in a limo with a po-faced ‘accountant’ and have the time it takes to arrive at the bank to make this person laugh. If they do, they win.
Ethically driving ratings
MD of Wogue Entertainment, Nathalie Wogue, points out the disconnect between the desire for ethical programming and the difficulty of selling warmer formats, especially into territories like the US. “It’s tricky to be ethical and, at the same time, effective enough in terms of ratings,” she says. It’s an observation that shines a light on the risk-aversion that has stifled creativity in the global format industry for around a decade. Adapting formats might have helped tried and tested ‘warm formats’ keep their place in the schedule, but Gil says Fox commission The Masked Singer indicates there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Fox took a great, huge risk by commissioning The Masked Singer when it aired January 2019. Because it paid off, what we’re seeing specifically on Fox, is that they’re now commissioning many new formats, which, of the ones I’ve heard about, are risky formats.” He adds: “For many years the US has been very cautious and has looked to markets like Netherlands, Israel, Scandinavia to bring new formats that will challenge shows as we know them. What’s happening now, I feel is a gamechanger.”
The Masked Singer’s combination of Korean off-beat humour and non-judgemental guessing game might be grabbing the headlines at the moment, but some of the harsher, more combative formats haven’t actually gone away: Laura Burrell, head of global formats at Viacom International Studios (VIS), references Survivor, Who Dares Wins and The World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge.
“I don’t think those shows have gone, I think the emphasis has shifted slightly so there’s better storytelling around the competitors so they feel more human,” she observes. “We’re given more insight to the competitors, why they’re there and what’s motivated them.”
Burrell uses Stranded With A Million Dollars to show how the harsher end of formats is being ‘warmed up’. The original US premise of dropping contestants in a harsh environment and encouraging them to survive without dipping into the prize money to buy kit was adapted for the Latin American market.
“Audiences there needed something much longer running but also something that was more about the contestants and relationships,” says Burrell. “They developed it into a daily strip where the contestants were on a journey initially but ended up at a base camp and they had a certain level of things provided to them. It did allow for a greater amount of storytelling among the contestants themselves, rather than the focus on whether they can survive the night.”
The linear broadcasters are looking at family viewing formats and SVODs – Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar – are looking for formats that can appeal to the young millennials
With Finding Prince Charming and Are You The One? on their slate, Burrell also believes that dating formats are not as judgemental as people think. “There’s a tendency to assume there’s a lot of negativity in the dating reality space, but actually a lot of those types of formats do start with a genuine search for love. Tonally [Are You The One] is about love. There will be some conflict in there because that’s the nature of reality TV but I think that’s an important point that gets missed sometimes. Reality shows get judged on ‘it’s all about arguing’ when actually they often have a very warm premise.”
ITVS’s Beale also nods to this trend and references newly launched Dutch half-hour dating show format Let Love Rule as an example of how a stripped, more ‘soap opera’ approach to dating show enables viewers to connect to participants more closely.
Keeping viewers smiling
Comedy is a big part of the appeal of feel-good formats and India is a big consumer of comedic, warm, family-friendly formats such as the Great Indian Laughter Challenge and the Kapil Sharma Show. But Deepak Dhar, CEO and founder of Banijay Asia, reports that India is now catching the dating trend too. SVODs in the territory are driving a demand for dating reality and risqué reality in the market. Talent reality is always in favour but platforms are looking at innovative dating formats to excite or engage with younger audiences.
“In India and the rest of Asia on the linear side and the SVOD side, as a trader and producer we’re seeing growth in formats,” says Dhar. “The linear broadcasters are looking at family viewing formats and SVODs – Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar – are looking for formats that can appeal to the young millennials. There’s a lot happening on both sides which makes it a good time to be a producer and creator in Asia.”
The question of how warm, competitive family-friendly shows that drive towards a season-end winner might translate to binge-culture is yet to be answered. K7 Media head of strategy, Girts Licis, suggests that hybrid formats that mix genres could be the next stage of their evolution with more scripted instruments applied to non-scripted shows.
Keeping it real
A saturated, fragmented market means it’s more difficult than ever to secure large audiences but Licis agrees with the school of thought that new ideas for competitive formats are likely to come from our experience of real life.
“The everyday situations and challenges society faces are likely to provide more ideas for competitive formats, possibly set on very realistic challenges,” says Licis. “Interestingly, in comparison with scripted dramas, non-scripted shows have not really tried to tackle dystopian scenarios, so far.
“Whilst this somewhat contradicts the current appeal of feel-good dynamics, it can’t be excluded as a possible direction for non-scripted competition at some point in the future. After all, audiences have always enjoyed watching superheroes saving the world.”
So, after a decade of stalemate it seems to be the quirk and style coming out of Korea and the bold decision-making of Fox in the US that is putting a pep in the market. As Assaf Gil says: “If you look back at new formats that have been commissioned, a lot of them feel very similar to each other. I feel that the interesting thing that’s happening now is a huge network is saying our strategy is different, we’re willing to take risks. I hope this could be something others will follow.”