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MIPCOM, the global television market that runs Oct. 15-18 in Cannes, has become a bit of a drama queen.
Big-budget fiction series — whether network fare like Ben Stiller’s CBS prison break miniseries Escape at Dannemora with Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano or international efforts such as the AMC/BBC co-production of The Little Drummer Girl with Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard — grab all the attention and dominate discussions on the “future of TV.”
But what’s often obscured in the rush to find the next big thing in scripted series are developments in non-fiction, what’s more commonly known in the industry as the format business.
Non-fiction formats — from game and talent shows to reality programming — have always been the spine of MIPCOM. The Cannes market was where shows such as Big Brother, Got Talent, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The X Factor or The Voice first made their international debut. Before the “golden age of TV drama,” producers and network executives came to the south of France in large part to buy and sell the best new ideas in non-scripted entertainment. And they still do.
While there hasn’t been a headline-grabbing new entertainment show to match the launch of The Voice back in 2010, the format business is alive and well at MIPCOM and continues to innovate in an increasingly competitive environment.
British TV giant ITV is coming to Cannes this year with Love Island, arguably this year’s big small-screen success story. The reality dating show, a relaunch of the less-than-stellar Celebrity Love Island, became a surprise smash hit for ITV2 in Britain in its third season and closed its fourth year with record ratings and a deal for a U.S. adaptation with CBS. There are currently eight versions of Love Island on air, and the British original series has sold to more than 65 territories.
Mike Beale, managing director, Nordics & Global Creative Network for ITV Studios, sees lessons in Love Island for the format market as a whole. And it’s not just about packing a show with hot young things in bathing suits.
“We have to take more time to understand what makes a show work and to educate both buyers and markets,” says Beale, noting that ITV has been pushing Love Island as its flagship title for the last four international markets. “We no longer expect to come out of the traps firing, it takes time to get broadcasters worldwide on board and, in this increasingly crowded environment, it takes time for new shows to find an audience.”
Beale points at other non-scripted formats, such as Married at First Sight or First Dates, that, like Love Island, only really became hits three seasons in.
“It’s the Rule of 3, which I’ve just made up,” he says, “what’s happening is broadcasters are giving shows time to develop and find their feet as well as giving audiences time to find them.”
The original Love Island only became a ratings hit in its third season on ITV.
“You have to be amazingly entertaining to stand out in the market,” adds Rob Clark, director of global entertainment development at Fremantle. “If you look at what breaks through, it’s normally a big concept, something quite loud or different that can either capture a huge family audience or is very narrow and specific for a niche group.”
In the former category for MIPCOM, Fremantle has The Greatest Dancer, a shiny-floor talent show, produced together with Syco Entertainment (The X Factor), that will premiere in the U.K. on BBC One. The show, in which ordinary people do a dance audition in front of a mirror (behind which is a live, voting studio audience), promises, Clark says, “to do for dance what Got Talent did for variety back in 2006. … This isn’t about the technical aspects of dance, about being ‘on point,’ whatever that means. This is about how dance makes you feel.”
On the more niche side of the spectrum, Fremantle has Eating With My Ex, a dating format in which 20- or 30-somethings are forced to sit down to dinner with their ex-partners, and answer six killer questions about their relationship written on their plates.
Clark sees “an awful lot of noise” in the format market today. Producers from Israel, Korea and China are now mixing it up with the traditional format kings from the U.K. and the Netherlands and U.S. networks are also upping their game. NBC is pushing a global rollout for Songland, its new music competition aimed at discovering the next great songwriter, produced by Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and The Voice producer Audrey Morrissey. Fox Networks Group arrives at MIPCOM hawking Talento Fox, a South American take on the variety reality show where the focus is on overcoming fear and obstacles more than on natural-born talent.
“You have to kiss an awful lot of frogs to find the prince,” says Clark, noting the main competition for new entertainment shows are highly successful formats — the likes of X Factor, Idol and Got Talent — still on air in many territories worldwide.
“To stand a chance of getting in, you have to be pretty special, the ideas have to stand out,” he says. “It’s anyone’s guess which of dozens of new formats being shopped at MIPCOM this year will become the break-out hits of tomorrow.”
No single genre — whether dating, dancing, variety or quiz show — stands out as the “next big thing,” but variations on every genre, and genre mash-ups, proliferate. Fremantle’s Match Fit, in which former, now fat, soccer stars undergo an intense fitness regime to try and squeeze back into their old uniforms for one final game, combines the female-skewing sliming/fitness genre with the male-focused sports show.
ITV’s I’ll Get This brings together the comedy panel show with eating out reality programming a la Come Dine With Me, sitting five celebrities together at a top restaurant, playing games and quizzes while chatting, with the loser picking up the bill at the end of the night. Keshet International’s Showdown – Aviv/Eyal tweaks the singing competition format by staging the search for the next big star as a grudge match between two of the country’s most famously antagonistic performers.
“This merging of genres, a show whose concept you recognize but with a twist, is partly due to risk-adversity in the marketplace,” says ITV’s Beale. “Broadcasters want a marketing shortcut for the viewers to say: I understand this show — I’m going to give a try.”
ITV Studios’ I’ll Get This combines the eating-out reality show with the comedy panel format.
Beale sees the same quality of risk-aversion in the other big trend in non-scripted: The revival of hit formats, from American Idol‘s relaunch in the U.S. to reboots of entertainment classics including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Hell’s Kitchen and Come Dine With Me in various territories worldwide.
Luckily for more adventurous non-fiction producers, the number of buyers for their formats continues to increase, as streaming platforms move into the entertainment and reality space. Ahead of MIPCOM, Netflix signed a worldwide deal to take U.K. unscripted format The Circle. The All3Media production, which launched on Channel 4 in September, features contestants living in separate apartments in a single building who do not meet face-to-face but communicated solely through a voice-activated social media platform.
“Now you could say The Circle is just Big Brother where they don’t meet, but I think it is something more there,” says Beale. “It is Big Brother modernized, a social experiment for our times.”
While Beale thinks it will take “a brave broadcaster” to bet big on a truly innovative new format, he sees opportunity in the new platform players. Alongside Netflix and Amazon Prime, Youtube, Facebook and Apple have stepped up their production, and acquisition, of non-scripted TV.
“The platforms are really interesting and particularly YouTube and Facebook, which are social and interactive by nature,” says Beale. “I think they might be the place we’ll see the next change in TV, something different from the sit back formats towards something where the viewers lean forward and audiences are truly involved.”
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