TBI Tech & Analysis: How appealing to the basics translates to format success

The Masked Singer Belgium

With entertainment formats enjoying a pandemic- and streamer-led ‘golden age’, TBI deputy editor Mark Layton talks to Fremantle’s entertainment chief Rob Clark to analyse the best-selling genres – and explore what the future holds.

Media giant Fremantle achieved some big wins in K7 Media’s recent annual format report, which highlighted the London-based company’s format distribution successes over the past year.

In total, Fremantle was responsible for almost 24% of all global format sales activity in 2020, with four of the top 10 best-selling formats of the past 12 months sold by the company. Worldwide hit The Masked Singer, which it holds rights to in 29 territories across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was top of the list with 23 sales and fellow music-mystery format I Can See Your Voice earned a respectable seven.

Both originated as South Korean formats launched in 2015, with the former debuting on MBC and the latter on Mnet. In the past few days, Fremantle has also scooped up the production and licensing rights to spin-off show The Masked Dancer for those same 29 territories.

Rob Clark

Appealing to the basics

Rob Clark, global director of entertainment at Fremantle, tells TBI that the international success of those top two performing shows should come as no big surprise, as both appeal to “the absolute basics of what television was fundamentally created for in terms of entertainment.”

Both are, Clark highlights, effectively guessing games, the likes of which have been popular since “the start of TV time,” says the exec. The Masked Singer features celebrities singing while disguising who they are beneath costumes and masks, with a panel attempting to guess their identities. I Can See Your Voice, meanwhile, requires guests to guess whether contestants are good singers or bad singers, based only on their looks.

The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice have moved that into a different genre, which is very clever; they’ve moved a singing show into a guessing game. So it’s still fundamentally a game show; it’s not a talent show.”

The broad appeal, as Clark points out, is that anyone watching along at home can feel as though they are participating by having a guess too. “Whether you’re five years old or 80 years old, your opinion is as valid as anything else.” This, he notes, is rather more rewarding than when it comes to knowledge-based quiz shows.

“We have very few quiz shows in our catalogue, because quiz shows rely on the fact that you’re disenfranchising part of your audience. You’re relying on the fact that you need a little bit of knowledge to participate.”

What’s more, as has been a familiar story over the past year, the pandemic and subsequent demand for broad, family, feel-good formats didn’t hurt the shows’ viewing figures either: “They came at completely the right time, they arrived as audiences were being in many ways forced into the TV room to sit together for the first time, probably, in many years.”

Fox’s US version of I Can See Your Voice

American jet booster

While the formats for both these shows have been around since 2015, it’s only in the past couple of years that they have begun to travel, with The Masked Singer in particular rising to global dominance having now been adapted in more that 40 countries.

Both rose to greater global attention after the Fox network adapted them for US audiences, a move that Clark says is essential for propelling any format around the world.

“If you’re talking global rollout, you need an American sale; it is the jet booster,” says Clark. “You can have a great show from Korea, you can have a great show from the UK, but really, unless you’ve got a big American sale on a network or sizable channel then you’re not going to hit the mega-numbers that these big handful of shows ever do.

“Fox had great foresight and on the back of that we had great foresight in mopping up a sizeable chunk of the world’s rights on it.”

While those two shows might be among the current global hits, Clark has plenty of thoughts about the type of formats that we might see prosper in the near future.

“I think you’ll find more experimentation with the traditional singing show,” says Clark, explaining that while formats such as Idol are still very popular, their nigh-on 20-year reign won’t last forever without updates to the formula. “I think you’re finding that the dream of a record label is probably not what it once was, so there’s lots of work being done on those.”

“I think there’s room for a very good global dating show,” he adds. “I think Too Hot To Handle [the reality dating show produced by Fremantle label Talkback, in which contestants are tricked into having no sexual contact for a month in order to win a cash prize] was such a big hit for Netflix that there’s lots of work being done about shows where people think they’re going for one thing but they’re coming back for another, which is quite a traditional tool within these formats.”

Too Hot To Handle

A land of opportunity

With the rapid rise of global streamers, Netflix is of course just one among many services looking to compete by expanding its offering, with increasing focus on entertainment content.

“I’m not entirely sure that they take more of a risk or that they commission nearly as much as people think they commission. But they are commissioning across quite a wide range of non-scripted formats now and that is new,” says Clark. “Don’t forget that two years ago, this wasn’t happening on any of them, they were very much about drama and documentary. But all of a sudden, they are not just into reality, they’re also into minority interests. So they will become important destinations for viewers for reality, for the foreseeable future.”

Where opportunity lies with the streamers, however, adds Clark, is not just with new commissions, but in opening up the distribution catalogue and helping these services fill up their libraries. “If you’d gone back two years, I think you could say there was a distinct type of programme that Netflix, or whoever, was looking for. I don’t think that’s true now, I think that everything is beginning to merge.

“To compete with the streamers, networks are having to have high-end reality shows; to compete with the library that is on these other networks now, Netflix is buying up vast amounts of library as well. So it’s not just about what they’re commissioning, but what they’re buying in terms of old-fashioned tape.”

With the way in which audiences consume content rapidly changing, one thing is for certain, there are plenty of opportunities to be found and, as Clark puts it, the industry is enjoying “a bit of a golden period in terms of commissioning.”

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