Doc/Fest: Discovery, ProSieben offer format advice

Execs from Discovery, ProSiebenSat.1 and Wall To Wall Productions have weighed in on the shifting trend for formatted factual shows at Sheffield Doc/Fest, discussing the dos and don'ts producers should be aware of when developing. (pictured: Cake Boss)
June 9, 2011

Execs from Discovery, ProSiebenSat.1 and Wall To Wall Productions have weighed in on the shifting trend for formatted factual shows at Sheffield Doc/Fest, discussing the dos and don’ts producers should be aware of when developing.

The “Death of Formats? Are Formats Dead?” session, chaired by Story House Productions’ development manager Andrea Zimmermann, looked at the success of ob doc-style shows in the U.S. and UK, and their rising dominance over heavily formatted series.

Addressing delegates, Sarah Thornton, head of production and development for lifestyle and entertainment at Discovery Networks UK and Europe, said: “If you look at the big hits at the moment – Gypsy Weddings, Pawn Stars – it could seem like ob docs are ruling, but for all these shows there are as many formats still working – Fairy Jobmother, Embarrassing Bodies.

“For us, bottom line, formats do work – but it’s a question of what form they take,” she added.

Thornton offered the example of Cake Boss (pictured above), a U.S. TLC show which she said had achieved great success for Discovery Networks across Europe. While on the surface the show is an ob-doc, she pointed out that the show still has a formatted element to it via a predictable narrative. “With this show, we’re constantly mystified by its success because it’s really a simple little show,” she said.

She said, however, that the program’s directly formatted spin-off, Cake Boss: Next Great Baker, had not performed in the UK, with audiences turned off by the overt formatting of the competition element.

“This isn’t the only competition format which really hasn’t worked for us,” she said. “Time and time again we’ve tried more formatted shows and they haven’t really worked. At Discovery, our viewers expect something which feels a bit more factual – whether it actually is or not is irrelevant.”

Jonathan Hewes, deputy CEO and head of international at Wall To Wall (Man On Wire, Who Do You Think You Are?) echoed Thornton’s sentiment about predictable narratives in ob-docs such as Cake Boss and Gypsy Weddings.

“There’s a tension there about how you keep a show fresh and interesting when it’s a format,” he said. “Clearly, all factual programs have become much more formatted – that’s about predictability. And the only people who don’t like predictability are documentary filmmakers.”

Hewes cited his company’s biggest factual hit, Who Do You Think You Are?, as an example of a show which, when it first launched, was not an obvious format, despite its subsequent success in the UK and abroad.

“There isn’t a winner – it isn’t a competition, it’s what you might call a soft format,” he said. “We didn’t plan for it to be a format – it’s quite a slow-paced show.”

Hewes added that in the UK, over the last six to nine months, “there have been several very formatted shows that have not worked on networks, because you can see the hand of the maker.” He offered Four Rooms and Love Thy Neighbour as examples.

The Wall To Wall exec discussed Long Lost Family – a Dutch format which helps reunite estranged family members, which the producer makes for terrestrial ITV1 – which was recently recommissioned for a second season.

With Long Lost Family, which has been on TV in Holland for some 17 years, Hewes said that “the construction [of the format] is visible, but the journey is authentic.”

He opined that as it is a program “in the service of something that’s there already” – namely people who are already searching for family members – viewers are prepared to overlook the obvious formatting. Finally, he added that his company was moving into entertainment, “a new area for us,” with its forthcoming UK adaptation of Dutch format The Voice.

Elsewhere in the session, ProSiebenSat.1′s VP for documentaries, factual and “docutainment,” Florian Falkenstein, weighed in from the German side, citing ProSieben’s long-running science format Galileo as the network’s big success story.

Falkenstein laid out three major pitfalls for formats and three things that will boost their chances, at least in the European markets in which ProSieben operates. With the pitfalls, he argued that firstly, copies kill – “the more copies there are the quicker the format dies, and there’s really nothing you can do about this,” he said.

Secondly, narrower-focused formats die faster, with the most specific formats having little room to grow beyond their initial concept. And finally, nervousness is life-threatening, he said, explaining that TV is a cautious and nervous business – if a commissioning editor is not completely confident in your format, it is at risk.

The rules for success, he added, were firstly to be quiet and careful – launch small and build your brand, as Who Do You Think You Are? has done, rather than with a big bang, as Seven Days did. Secondly, “new formats can start as a single event, or air quarterly,” he said, offering that audiences can have too much of a good thing.

Finally, producers should look to develop successful brands from their formats. “Brands are promises – use them for a franchise,” he said.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.