One of the most intriguing aspects of reality formats is their ability to spotlight how people’s fortunes are determined by their own talents and problem-solving skills. In 2004, the genre’s producers face an ironically similar challenge. Like the performer/lover/home renovator/adventurer who must strive against being voted off a show, international format makers have to keep knocking them – broadcasters – dead to stay in the game.
Producers can no longer rely on the novelty of reality television, as viewers today readily channel-hop from format hit to format hit. Instead, enterprising prodcos are taking steps to ensure their fare not only stands out, but stays alive as long as possible. The strategies include opening a show with ratings-grabbing twists, and developing centralized resources to best exploit a format’s local production. On the sales side, format creators and distributors are retrenching, in part by offering innovative budget-financing strategies.
A talent for tinkering
In a bid to keep a program fresh, format creators need to balance two competing agendas: maintaining a show’s identity while altering it so it seems new and improved to audiences. It’s a line format owners must tread carefully.
World Wide Entertainment – a unit of London-based entertainment powerhouse FremantleMedia and the company behind all Idols productions (it sends ‘flying’ teams to oversee the format’s execution in every territory) – is one of many companies that approaches that challenge carefully. As company president and the talent program’s ‘brand-father’ Alan Boyd explains, ‘We are always…doing little tests of ideas and changes, such as when we put in the wildcard show [a 'judge's choice' show].’
The wildcard element proved popular, but nevertheless, WWE keeps the format on a short creative leash, because the repercussions of a misstep could damage Idol’s longevity, Boyd says. ‘If [ratings] slip in one territory, other territories will see that and wonder, why doesn’t it work there?’
Catherine Payne, CEO of Sydney-based Southern Star Sales, adds, ‘You have to look at new angles and look at what was [a format's] strengths and expand on them, but you also don’t want to go away from the key elements that make it work.’
With productions of its society-mirror format up and running in 25 countries, Big Brother creator Endemol Holding devotes an entire department to exploiting the show’s ratings-grabbing potency in local markets.
Headed by Anuska Ban, the Hilversum, Netherlands-based company’s executive director for creative and production support, the 10-person team strictly enforces five core BB components: the set design, the use of a room for discreet comments to producers, the elimination voting methodology, the participant isolation, and the assignment of weekly chores. However, following the format’s first complete season in a territory, a local production may relax some or most of the rules, says Ban. The two constants are the ‘confession’ room and the execution of the ‘evictions.’
‘Once you start your fourth or fifth season, you need something new,’ explains Ban. ‘For instance, in the U.S. we had the ‘ex-factor’ [in which the participants were surprised by having former lovers brought in as their housemates]. That was a very big hit with audiences.’ Other tweaks and twists include dividing the house along class or sex lines, or including
guest-star appearances – soccer legend Diego Maradona once popped by the Argentine BB set. The latter changes house dynamics by letting the outside world creep in.
A format’s evolutionary arc needn’t always be as circumscribed as the Idol franchise or Endemol dropping its hard-line production regime. Under Construction – a format developed by Chatterbox and distributed by prodco Zeal Television, both of London – has a ready-made refreshment path local prodcos can exploit for follow-up seasons, says Zeal’s director of television Andrea Jackson. A format in which couples must compete to build a ‘dream’ home while scheming to win home-audience votes, its look and feel can be modified significantly simply by devoting the construction to another design (an environmentally friendly house, for example).
‘It’s exactly the same format, but this change does help move the program on in a very natural and organic way,’ Jackson explains. ‘We aren’t changing the rules…we’re just adding a nuance of difference that keeps people interested.’
First made for German commercial broadcaster RTL 2 in early 2003, by the end of the year the format (which carries a minimum budget of approximately US$3 million) had been sold to many territories, including Russia, Australia, Scandinavia and Belgium.
Zeal also promotes the longevity of a given reality program by helping the producers in new territories to maximize the production knowledge accumulated by their sister format prodcos. The prodco maintains a regularly updated website that acts as a clearinghouse of information regarding Under Construction. The material listed there includes everything from production shortcuts to sponsorship leads.
‘The site is a way to keep the format fresh, because people will come up with great ideas… that can improve upon it and continue to sustain the format across a number of series,’ Jackson says. Zeal, like many format owners and managers, exercises a contract clause whereby any changes to a show’s execution or design must receive the company’s approval. Zeal also becomes the owner of that innovation, and thus has the right to share it with the other format licensees. ‘We are often very happy to see the format changed, because we don’t believe the world is all the same,’ she says.
Since most reality formats are lucky to see their fifth birthday, one of the best strategies with which producers can win a broadcaster’s buy-in for a new format is to show a track record of successful and reproducible sponsorship schemes.
The Block is an Australian housing-renovation format that premiered to record audiences when it was launched by creator Nine Network in 2003. In the six months since its international debut, Southern Star Sales, the format’s distributor, has secured deals for Canada (Global Television); France (M6); Belgium and the Netherlands (the SBS group); Sweden, Denmark and Norway (TV 2 Denmark); Africa (M-NET); and also for Italy, Spain and Germany. (Additionally, Nine secured sales directly with Fox in the U.S. and ITV in the U.K.) The program is popular in part because it offers a unique way for product placements and sponsorships to be woven into the storyline, says Southern Star’s Payne.
The premise pits a number of couples against one another in a competition where they must improve a property while maintaining their real jobs; the properties are then sold on the housing market (Australians sell homes at auction; perfect for television). Each couple keeps the profit above the property’s reserve price, with the couple whose house earns the highest bid collecting an additional AUS$100,000 ($72,000) cash prize.
Since the cast needs to purchase a lot of tools and renovation equipment, brands are splashed across the television screen without seeming invasive, as the contestants shop for skill saws and paint rollers. Viewers took notice of the brands. ‘When the producers did a follow-up survey, audiences had a 90% recall of product sponsors. It was unheard of,’ says Payne.
Jackson at Zeal agrees that effective sponsorship opportunities are essential to a format’s longevity. ‘The great thing with Under Construction is you can produce it more cheaply than you can a show like Big Brother,’ she says. For instance, the show’s budget can be offset by myriad sponsorship deals: arrangements can be made with developers for the land, and licensed building- contractors are keen to provide their expertise for greatly reduced rates in exchange for time on camera. ‘It’s not really [traditional] product placement, but you can use branded products completely legitimately in this program,’ she says.
These are just some examples of the things producers can do. In the case of The Block, Payne notes an added bonus is that one of the biggest expenses of the budget – the property, plus the materials used in the renovation – is recovered in full through the home’s sale.
Keeping sex behind closed doors
With many reality programs – especially those on commercial networks in primetime – an easy way of renewing audience interest after the initial splash is by boosting the sexuality exhibited on screen. But, while that may work in many parts of the world, using the ‘sex sells’ marketing trick won’t go far in most of Asia.
Hong Kong-based producer Robert Chua has made programs – including reality formats – for air in China, Singapore and his native Hong Kong since 1967. When it comes to reality formats, he says, overt sexuality and on-screen heat, let alone on-screen copulating, is frowned upon. ‘In the United States and Europe, viewers are more into seeing love and sexuality [in public]. This is not so much encouraged in our culture, so it’s not very appropriate on television,’ Chua says. ‘Young people like it – they like Western culture and Western things – but generally, ‘edu-tainment’ is more what [broadcasters] prefer,’ he explains.
His advice to non-Asian format makers who might be considering pitching a local broadcaster: ‘Stay away from too much sex… It isn’t encouraged at all.’ MS