New formats have always had to fight for space against the exploitation of proven intellectual property, so what prompted broadcasters to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in programs to create new shows, asks Richard Middleton
The formats are designed to be exploited over and over again. This repeatability is ingrained in the essence of the industry, but it must also coexist with the need to come up with new ideas.
It’s a fine balance that has always existed, but the past year has seen a wave of funds and partnerships emerge designed to kick creativity up a notch. Some have eye-catching numbers alongside them: UK pubcaster Channel 4 launched its program at the end of 2020 with a £30m ($40m) fund; a $100 million headline-grabbing initiative then came from Fox in October of last year; followed by a transatlantic alliance – with no number attached – between the BBC and NBCUniversal (NBCU).
Such initiatives all seek to finance the creation of new formats in one way or another, but these programs are not entirely new: broadcasters and production groups have sought to accelerate the development of formats for years, while country-specific industry programs have helped support many new formats coming to market.
Scale and reasoning
What makes these programs different is their size and ambitions, which suggests that something bigger is afoot. Jin Woo Hwang, president and executive producer of South Korean format specialist SomethingSpecial, told TBI that the pandemic and its associated effects on production around the world have led some companies to seek “to explore rather than exploit” on the front of the format. A desire to compete on new ideas naturally saw others make similar moves.
There has also been a rapid shift on the acquisition side, with many streamers going global and looking for profitable unscripted ideas that can be replicated. Some executives TBI has approached for this feature admit they’re surprised these OTT buyers haven’t been more direct in their format and operating strategies to date, but the situation is by no means case certain to last.
Others, including Media Ranch CEO Sophie Ferron, say streamers’ strategy is increasingly focused on capturing print formats in order to grab global rights early on.
“Just the fact that there are so many streamers looking for subscribers gives a lot of weight to the paper format, because they need these high concept ideas – and they have to own them to deploy them,” adds- she.
This changing landscape might suggest why broadcasters seek to capitalize on and leverage their existing positions as “mass audience” machines. The potential to air your show in front of millions via an American or British broadcaster is the holy grail for most format producers and the networks, of course, know that.
“There is a need to go further, to find more creative and different people to enter the market – unscripted television has entered a more mature phase” Rob Wade, Fox Entertainment
But as Rob Wade, president of alternative entertainment and specials at Fox Entertainment, tells TBI, there’s also been an overhaul of how the money is spent. Broadcasters in many parts of the world, especially smaller markets, are strapped for cash and looking for more bang for their buck.
The idea of the Fox Alternative Entertainment (FAE)-backed program is to capitalize on this need, providing creative producers with funding to create ambitious shows that can launch an entire season in a smaller market, rather than investing in a single pilot in the United States that could tell executives little about the series’ potential for success.
In some ways, the pact between the BBC and the NBCU is similar in that it also seeks to make money from broadcasters. Kate Phillips, the BBC’s entertainment controller, told TBI that their scheme was born when it emerged that NBC and the British broadcaster were both producing pilots of It’s my house. Had there been a more formal arrangement, development costs could have been shared.
“In the scripted world, that’s been done a lot — broadcasters join forces on the sitcom or the drama, and I thought why isn’t that happening in the unscripted. It seemed pretty obvious and a way for broadcasters to push shows forward.
“There is also a need to go further, to find more creative and different people to enter the market at this time, as unscripted television has entered a more mature phase,” adds Wade. “There was a time when you could take ideas centered around a better singer, or put a guy with 10 women…now that takes a bit more creativity because viewers are getting more and more sophisticated.”
For James Townley, who is the opposite of the equation as global head of content development at Banijay, schemas also make sense. “The continued thirst for new content and intellectual property, along with the shortage of talent, is driving the market to find new ways to attract creatives, differentiate slates from other players and, in turn, offer the audience of new programs to enjoy.”
Townley, however, also notes that his giant group also offers its own funds and initiatives. Banijay’s Creative Fund supports new intellectual property with international potential and it is from this source that ITV Starstruck originated from Remarkable in the UK. Explode from Endemol Shine Netherlands, and Heroes of Shaolin of Metronome and for TV2 in Denmark, were also recipients.
“These funds can also help producers take creative risks early on – for example, investing in cutting-edge technology as part of the development process that has yet to be tried and tested on screen. Your body discovered for the BBC is a great example of that,” he adds.
Obviously, the investment has also worked elsewhere before. Korean content company KOCCA has been pumping money to support the country’s IP creation for years and the results are now apparent on screens around the world.
“Most of KOCCA’s format funding projects today are designed to support independent production companies,” says SomethingSpecial’s Jin Woo Hwang. “The goal is to enhance creativity and provide marketing opportunities for independent businesses.”
Countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, India and Thailand are also focusing on developing local IP, Hwang adds, pointing to the Made With Singapore program of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). as “a good example”.
SomethingSpecial has also been a direct recipient of local funding, supported by KOCCA’s Format Lab Fund which has since “spawned nine wonderful ideas for new formats”, some of which are now “aligned” with international partners. “It allows us to seize greater opportunities,” he continues.
Canada’s Media Ranch was also an early proponent of format incubation programs, with its Horsepower initiative creating intellectual property such as House party: fair dance (being adapted in the United States by Wheelhouse Entertainment) and Van of love (in preparation via Renegade Pictures, owned by Warner Bros. Discovery in the UK).
And, again, signaling the growing interest of broadcasters in getting involved in such schemes, Quebecor Content of Canada was joined last year by French giant TF1 as a partner on Horsepower. For Media Ranch’s Ferron, involving broadcasters is a way for them to play in the market for new ideas while managing their risk.
Rights and returns
However, there is a cost to all of these plans. Fox’s fund is a commercial enterprise, not a charity, Wade says, and any format in which FAE invests – sums of around $2.5 million are available – must have a “back path” to appear on the American network.
Fox’s stake in the IP is on a “sliding scale” depending on its investment, but Wade says producers are incentivized and once FAE’s investment recoups there’s potential for more back. -end. “You basically get funding, but also a direct IV line in a network and that’s kind of our asset,” he adds.
Conversations are underway with companies in the UK, France, Ireland, Sweden, Australia and Mexico, while the program was launched with a show that served as an intentions panel.
Variety contest format The big deal was produced for Ireland’s Virgin Media Television in partnership with Dublin-based BiggerStage, with FAE owning the format. No news yet on whether it should debut on Fox, though.
Channel 4, meanwhile, is a year ahead of its schedule and recently launched a second quiz season Money bags from British producer Youngest Media. relational couple The trap of love and Doors Open: The Great Sexual Experiment and quiz format One and six zeros are also under construction.
For Phillips at the BBC, the focus is on “big game show ideas and shiny floors” as well as factual ideas. Just over six months into their pact, many shows are being developed by producers who are happy to give up US and UK rights in exchange for an investment. It’s not a small price to pay, but, as with Fox, the opportunities opened up by the arrival of a format in the United States are likely to allay producers’ concerns.
That said, Phillips is clear that the program is just one way of working with the BBC and that pre-existing development and pilot programs – which allow the producer to retain US rights – are available. “It looks like a win-win though,” she adds. “There’s a big pot of money when we combine.”
Wade also admits there is “skepticism” about funding schemes, but he urges broadcasters and creatives to explore their potential. “There’s always the ‘what if’ – can I have all the cake,” he adds of the producers’ wish to retain all rights.
With the growing demand for new IP, it is no longer just buyers who weigh the risks and rewards.