Formats: The Next Generation

When London, U.K.-based Castaway Television's Survivor format became the must-see U.S. show of the summer of 2000, Friends sitcom star Jennifer Aniston quipped to a reporter: 'It isn't real television.' As one of the best recognized faces on one of U.S. network television's most successful titles of the '90s, Aniston has influence, and her ironic lament showed that reality formats had arrived and were a force to be reckoned with.
November 1, 2002

When London, U.K.-based Castaway Television’s Survivor format became the must-see U.S. show of the summer of 2000, Friends sitcom star Jennifer Aniston quipped to a reporter: ‘It isn’t real television.’ As one of the best recognized faces on one of U.S. network television’s most successful titles of the ’90s, Aniston has influence, and her ironic lament showed that reality formats had arrived and were a force to be reckoned with.

Two years later, formatted reality programming dominates the television markets of virtually every territory. Programs such as Pop Idol/American Idol, Big Brother and Temptation Island (formats created by London-based 19 Television, Hilversum, Netherlands-based Endemol and Los Angeles, U.S.-based Rocket Science respectively) rank among the highest rated shows in countless countries. Their successful replication is due to several key strengths, most importantly the ease with which producers can shape their look and feel to the demographics of the target audience.

Now that reality formats have graduated from novelty to staple viewing, producers are under the gun to keep coming up with fresh program ideas. What characterizes the genre’s most recent generation? The addition of attention-seeking celebrities, the increased use of scripting and, perhaps most ambitiously, the mixing of genres.

Star power

‘If you look at the way reality television has gone over the past few years,’ says Richard Clemmow, director of factual programs at Carlton Television in London, ‘there are waves of different formats that are initially groundbreaking, then very popular, then perhaps overworked, and then finally busted.’ The challenge for producers is to capitalize on the peak of the wave as best they can.

An easy way for reality formats to build in the dramatic tension of personality is by outfitting the show with celebrities – the lower down the ladder of fame the better. Endemol’s head of licensing, Mike Morley, notes, ‘I think you’d have to be blind not to see that if you associate a former celebrity who is in a moment of crisis with reality situations, you get absolutely gripping TV.’

Phil Trelease, managing director of London-based format distrib Action Time, agrees. ‘People are always interested to see what celebrities do,’ he explains. ‘If you put a bunch of [stars] in an extreme situation, or even just an unreal situation…you see sides of their characters you didn’t know existed.’

A perfect example is I’m a Celebrity…Get me out of here!, made by London-based Granada Television and prodco lWT. In I’m a Celebrity, which aired to record audiences on ITV in the U.K. last summer, personalities including Christine Hamilton, the former wife of a disgraced British politician (and a popular tabloid target), and magician Uri Geller had to survive the perils of the Australian rain forest and their scheming fellow participants.

Irish pubcaster RTE is ‘only dipping its toes in the water’ of formats, but nevertheless has devised a celebrity-oriented show, says Edel Edwards, head of RTE’s program sales. Noting that formats are a departure for the public channel, she says RTE hopes The Fame Game, produced by Dublin, Ireland-based prodco Adare Productions, may be a contender on the international market. The premise combines trivia with celebrity-chasing. Says Edwards, ‘The winner is given the means and the information to track down their favorite celebrity.’ She adds that season one in Ireland garnered up to 40% of the target audience, and season two of the Irish version (it has also been optioned by an undisclosed U.K. production company) is already in production.

Better than the real thing

In addition to populating formats with celebrities, producers are taking other measures to ensure their reality show casts deliver content worth shooting. The secret ingredient? Scripting.

‘The general public would be quite surprised by how much control we producers have over reality programming,’ notes Trelease. ‘Obviously, it’s made to look as if it is – and it is, to some degree – filmed 24/7, but the fact that you’ve put casts into a controlled environment means you’re reasonably certain of what the outcomes are going to be.’ He continues: ‘Producers want a little more narrative weaving through the stories, instead of leaving it all up to chance.’

Scripting is ‘a natural progression’ from passive, fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, Trelease contends. ‘If you have more control, you have fewer elements that can shoot off in different tangents; therefore, you have fewer bases to cover, and that means a cost reduction,’ he says.

To help understand reality formats’ different stripes, Clemmow plots them on a scale from what he calls ‘loose’ formats, such as Carlton’s own Neighbours from Hell, about real-life feuds, to ‘tight’ formats such as Big Brother. ‘There is evidence of more and more highly produced – or, in some cases, overproduced – formatted programming,’ he says. ‘I think there is the danger of suicide by overperfection.’

Mix and match

As a result of the many high-profile successes, there has been a proliferation of production companies that offer reality formats. To fight the trend toward oversaturation, prodcos are beginning to mix genres such as drama or comedy with reality, like in MTV’s reality-sitcom (and celeb-based) The Osbournes.

A more audacious offering by Endemol is Meet the Mark. According to Morley, it blends a scripted, actor-casted comedy with a reality format. ‘It plays as a sitcom – there is a real storyline running along, but each week an unsuspecting, completely unknowing member of the public is called to the venue where the people in the sitcom are, and, through hidden cameras, they are filmed in a real-life situation,’ he explains. ‘They may think they are coming to cut the hair and do the makeup of somebody about to get married, when in fact they have stumbled onto the set of a scripted sitcom.’

In a bid to remain ahead of the curve, Strix – the Stockholm, Sweden-based company that first produced Castaway’s Survivor format for Swedish pubcaster SVT in 1997 (called Expedition Robinson) – has come up with Solidarity. This format combines reality television with charity fund-raising to support a non-profit aid mission in the developing world. Anna Bråkenhielm, managing director of Strix, explains: ‘It works on two fronts – in the [recipient] village and in the home territory – and we allow our viewers to participate in the difficult aid work in a more concrete way than ever before. During the two months on air, the viewers will follow the lives of our volunteer workers via TV and daily news updates through the Internet, and can participate directly on several levels.’

Bråkenhielm says the goal lies in creating a new form of humanitarian assistance. ‘The viewer will see how and where the aid is being used. For example, viewers who contributed to an X-ray machine will be able to see it helping lives just weeks after the original appeal.’

Another genre-mixing format example is DIY Dad, from New Zealand’s Touchdown Television. This concept combines elements of a Trading Spaces/Changing Rooms-style show with a competitive test of skill, says Peter Van den bussche, the London, U.K.-based head of international sales for Touchdown (and former director of sales for Endemol’s U.K. operations). DIY Dad pits six fathers against one another for the ultimate title of

the top amateur home-improver in the land. ‘They are tested on their homework; [the show] focuses on how their own house looks.’

Format forefathers

While it might seem as though reality formats are a fairly recent creation, their foundation was established roughly 15 years ago, says Van den bussche. The deregulation of television markets, especially in Europe, resulted in newly formed commercial broadcasters that craved ‘bright, fluffy programming.’ Reality formats, or what Van den bussche calls ‘emotional game shows,’ stood out among the offerings. ‘Formats proved that when you have local programming, people relate a lot more to it,’ he notes.

Michel Rodrigue, the CEO of Montreal, Canada-based distributor Distraction Formats, agrees: ‘People want to see TV [produced] as close to them as possible…not television as a dream that American producers have accustomed them to.’

Adds Endemol’s Morley, ‘I think the standard game show in many territories no longer has appeal… Audiences won’t just sit there and watch questions being asked and answered. They want to see the contestants engaged in a greater level of activity, and they want to vicariously experience it themselves.’ He continues, ‘If you look at Big Brother, it is about bringing people together, exposing them to public view, and giving them a platform to speak openly and honestly in a way that television has never done before.’

The pioneering reality format producers were working without a template, notes Bråkenhielm, who helped launch Expedition Robinson five years ago. ‘There was no production bible, so we had to try everything out on our own.’ Part of the challenge was developing from scratch exciting, camera-friendly competitions, in which contestants compete for things such as meals and ‘immunity’ from expulsion votes. Strix has now come up with more than 200 tests of strength, skill and cooperation, Bråkenhielm says.

The ultimate measure of success for any format is a breakthrough in the territory that invented television – the U.S. Whose Line is it Anyway?, an improv comedy show from London-based prodco Hat Trick, was the first reality format to find success in that market four years ago, says Van den bussche. London-based Celador’s Who Wants to be Millionaire? was next, becoming the most talked-about program in the U.S. in the summer of 1999. But, the true breakout program was doc-game show hybrid Survivor, produced for American audiences in 2000 by Santa Monica, U.S.-based Mark Burnett Productions.

Survivor‘s launch came with much fanfare. Controversy surrounding Expedition Robinson, in which one of the contestants committed suicide after being voted off by the show’s cast, only added to the U.S. audience’s anticipation that Survivor would be a memorable event. The death, says Van den bussche, ‘was totally unrelated, but it created an enormous amount of press hype.’

Old ideas, fresh faces

The most popular of the established shows are still going, but they too must reinvent themselves. To do so, says Daniela Welteke, senior VP of international programming and coproductions at Los Angeles-based Fox World (a unit of Fox Television Studios), producers focus on casting and the personal backgrounds of the selected participants. ‘If the people that we choose are interesting and have complex stories, we are convinced that [viewers] will come back.’ Action Time’s Trelease agrees: ‘Casting is absolutely critical.’

Fox has implemented this approach successfully with Temptation Island. Unveiled in the U.S. by Fox in 2000, the program offers a voyeuristic view of as many as a half-dozen young and nubile couples as they test the bonds of their relationships. Fox has since rolled out the show to more than 12 countries.

To help keep a tight rein on production costs for all the versions of Temptation Island, Fox employs a ‘facility’ approach to shooting, explains Welteke. ‘We pool several countries together into a cohesive [production] schedule. That allows us to set up once, so the cost of that setup gets amortized across about five countries, and that makes it much more affordable to put on a first-class show. Obviously, it takes a lot of work, but it also means you’re investing in the building of the brand, because we allow countries to put more money on the screen within their usual, local budget ranges.’

Morley at Endemol adds, ‘The culture adapts your budget. Proportionately, for the territory, it’s still a big spend, but when you break down episodically what the broadcaster gets and what the sweeteners are – the ancillary rights, the merchandising, the interactive rights that come with reality TV – it more than pays for itself.’

Production companies have to work hard to ensure that reality formats remain fresh and spontaneous, even when they are heavily massaged in development. Television actors will no doubt be unhappy to see that the tide of reality formats hasn’t washed away, but at least it’s washing back toward them, as celebrities and scripts become more prevalent. Won’t Jennifer Aniston be relieved.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.