Where the hell are all the formats?

Reputation Rehab

Siobhan Crawford, head of sales and acquisitions at Belgium’s Primitives, the distributor of The Mole and Reputation Rehab, asks what the future holds for formats in an increasingly talent-led business.

The words “creative renaissance” were uttered this week at the Edinburgh TV Festival, referring to the positive impact of Covid on creativity in our industry.

I leave you to decide if the commissions of celebrity-driven short series, in which they experience the lives of normal people, the challenges faced by normal people that – surprise, surprise – celebrities have experienced too, and the privileged experiences these celebrities are given due to their status, are worthy of Da Vinci level notoriety.

Not a single format – quiz, dating or shiny floor – in sight. Have commissioners’ ventures in the past two years into formats scared them off? The likes of Bank Balance, Pooch Perfect, Don’t Rock The Boat, Undercover Big Boss, Cooking With The Stars won’t be making a return.

Just how many requests for ‘brand new’, ‘not safe’, ‘unique’, ‘talent-led’, ‘personal stories’, ‘told differently’, ‘new spin’, can we honestly hear? Celebrities become fertility specialists, climb particularly difficult glaciers, discuss personal health matters, start football academies, become architects. All content we know is local to one territory and will travel as tape only.

Why does this matter? Because format distribution is the section of the industry that has brought the juggernaut titles to your schedules, ie Bake Off, Dancing With The Stars and Love Island. It is where you turn to see trends, where you find titles to reboot. It is the reason we attend international conferences dedicated to the dissemination of new ideas, it is the content we lovingly protect, and from this festival week it would appear the market has shifted to hyper-local, talent driven content and away from formats.

So we have to ask, is there a place for formats in the future?

Siobhan Crawford

A sea of content

In the world of formats, the possibilities are endless. There is a format that exists for everything, with the belief that these formats transcend borders and can be localised successfully for a lower cost than an R&D budget. So why, with so much choice, do we see commissions announced that show so little originality?

Do people not know what formats are around or are they knowingly avoiding existing formats? Some format acquisition is happening – we have to congratulate Netflix for moving Sexy Beasts from BBC3 to its service, Taskmasters from UKTV to Channel 4 and Eggheads from BBC to Channel 5, but please, the plentiful sea has more!

Packaging for a pitch

As distributors, we know the benefits of working with local producers to provide localised pitches – sometimes it is the only way. But perhaps this has gone too far: when you put talent first on a project to get the greenlight you will likely have made it far harder to export the format internationally.

Humour, as is certainly the case in the UK and Belgium, is so keenly local it will impact the entire programme structure. By opting for talent-led soft programming we are stamping ‘tape sale only’ on a project, certainly not looking outward to possibilities.

SVODS and their needs

This week, Disney+ was asked about the rights they require, and this answer is no different to any streamer: “We are a worldwide service, we want worldwide rights”.

This creates two problems: there are very few formats that are available with worldwide rights available to pitch and secondly, even if you can find that format, the streamer will likely commit to only a one territory commission (plus worldwide rights with a holdback for ROW!).

The majority of local offices for streamers do not want to commission local versions of existing content from their platform or that viewers will have seen on other channels.

On speaking with Discovery, Amazon, Netflix, Disney etc, they are asking to be pitched brand new paper formats that they can develop and take world rights to do with as they please. Amazon calls it “the best strategic result” but I wonder for who? With the exception of reboots and premium titles, which streamers can and will acquire for single territories?

Applause, however, for HBO Max, who may become a distributor’s best friend, for announcing they can buy for single territories (and no trash!).

So, what value can we put on existing formats with great ratings? Who will acquire them? Will distributors have to diversify to paper and track-record titles to meet the needs of the many? And when will the revolution begin where format owners can say no to the streamers ­– you may not have worldwide unless you commit to more than a UCAN commission?

With MIPCOM fast approaching, having seen line-ups gutted in the past 18 months, who will return triumphant with the jewel of the season to kick start a format renaissance?

Tags: Primitives

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