Staying Alive: Burnett, Van Munster on refreshing formats

Several of television's biggest, and longest-running, unscripted formats seem to be in fine shape. But no programming juggernaut remains atop the mountain forever. Teams behind some of TV's biggest series tell realscreen how to keep legacy formats fresh. (Pictured: The Amazing Race)
October 19, 2015

“If it ain’t broke…” We all know the rest of the old adage, and indeed, several of television’s biggest, and longest-running, unscripted formats seem to be in fine shape. But no programming juggernaut remains atop the mountain forever. Here, teams behind some of the biggest series on television discuss how to keep legacy formats fresh.

If you ask super-producer Mark Burnett how Survivor has managed to stay on the air since its 2000 debut, he’ll insist what’s driven renewals for the CBS competition series – all 31 of them – is “a creative thing” that can’t be analyzed from a technical perspective.

Tuning in to legacy formats is like receiving a letter from a loved one, analogizes Burnett. The message comes in a certain envelope with a specific kind of stamp and familiar handwriting, but what’s written each time is different.

Survivor has this envelope – this familiar stationery and handwriting that’s beloved by fans – but we rewrite the letter each season so you never get it where it’s completely changed formats: it’s just micro-changes to the format that the fans have grown to love,” says the producer.

What happens, then, when a legacy format stops working, even with seasonal tweaks and refreshments? Just last week, The CW cancelled America’s Next Top Model after 12 years on the air, and American Idol’s revolving panel of celebrity judges – and J.Lo close-ups – came to a halt when Fox canceled the show during its May upfront, serving a blow to a stable of long-running reality shows that have been mainstays in prime-time line-ups for almost 15 years.

Survivor has this envelope – this familiar stationery and handwriting that’s beloved by fans – but we rewrite the letter each season so you never get it where it’s completely changed formats: it’s just micro-changes to the format that the fans have grown to love.”
- Mark Burnett

Though the U.S. broadcaster plans to end the program only after a farewell season beginning in January, the denouement of Idol has served as an auspicious reminder to producers and networks alike: innovate, but still deliver on the qualities that made the show stick, which, in the case of Idol, was its ability to impact popular culture beyond television, through major singing stars and hit songs – both of which were in decline in latter years.

The question for legacy formats now is exactly how to balance a need for change while honoring a program that has historically drawn viewers – and a lot of them. Realscreen did a reality check of its own, and reached out to the producers and distributors of The Amazing Race, Big Brother, American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to gauge how their franchises are staying fresh in the U.S. and overseas.

Change, but not too much

Jane Dockery happily espouses a classic piece of advice on updating formats: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The senior VP of formats and international distribution at Sony Pictures Television oversees such formats as Dragon’s Den and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and insists that while in some territories, an original format can run for 15 years with the same host, other markets demand something different each season.

Jane Dockery

Jane Dockery

“Breathing new life into a format, keeping it fresh, attaching it to names that are a part of the current happenings in society, and surprising the audience are very important,” says Dockery, adding that the key challenge is in “taking the show they know so well, and bringing new twists to it and new people.”

After crossing the pond from the UK, Millionaire first debuted on U.S. broadcaster ABC in 1999 with host Regis Philbin and aired for three years before going into syndication. The format has sold into more than 120 territories, and is consistently tweaked with new lifelines, celebrity players and themed specials.

“In Germany [last June], RTL did a politicians special and the ratings went up to 7.5 million because they hadn’t really seen politicians answering questions,” explains Dockery. “One of the politicians decided to use a ‘phone a friend’ to call [German chancellor] Angela Merkel. Unfortunately she didn’t answer her phone.”

But despite the refreshments, she says, most audiences – even after 17 years – know instantly that they’re watching Millionaire, and that’s the point.

“Wherever you are in the world, if you switch on the TV and Millionaire is on, you’re going
to recognize it straight away because we’ve really managed the look and feel. It’s done very, very carefully to protect the brand and make it as recognizable and true to the original as possible,” says Dockery.

Going global

Ten Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Reality Competition and 27 seasons later, The Amazing Race co-creator Bertram van Munster says the key to the format’s success has always been its global stage.

The Amazing Race

The Amazing Race

“We’re not stuck in the studio with the same décor,” says the Profiles Television owner, explaining that the show has come to reflect changes in everything from people’s cars to their styles and interactions with others.

“That’s what gives it a tremendous amount of dimension. We’ve taken full advantage of what goes on – year to year, week to week. When you see the show, it’s maybe two months or six weeks old, so we’re always up to date.”

Since debuting in 2001, the around-the-world competition series – produced through Profiles-owned World Race Productions – has been sold into more than 80 countries, and currently has versions in production in Canada, China and Israel along with the landmark U.S. series.

When asked how closely he oversees the international formats, Van Munster enthusiastically responds, “We’re all over it.”

Profiles’ producers often serve as co-executive producers for creative and logistics, or as challenge producers and directors of photography on international versions, the exec says. But regardless of the company’s involvement, the shows only go as far as the budgets.

“Not everybody has the money,” says Van Munster. “We have smaller formats. The budget ties in with the creative but also with the logistics, and we support and help them with that.”

Bertrum van Munster

Bertram van Munster

In Canada, the Insight Productions-made The Amazing Race Canada has been a stunning success for broadcaster CTV. Currently in its third season, the show launched with a Canada-only season and expanded to international destinations in subsequent rounds.

Showrunner and Insight SVP Mark Lysakowski says his goal has been to make the show distinctly Canadian, while sticking to the format rules.

“Canadians want to see Canadian stories on Canadian television. We all love American television but in a Canadian version, they want to see a Canadian story,” says Lysakowski. “You follow the format bible but make one or two little changes, because if you change things too dramatically, the audience won’t recognize the show they fell in love with and that’s important,” he says.

Social savvy

If steady is the new win, CBS’s Big Brother hasn’t just been staying alive, it’s been thriving. Just consider that a season 17 episode this past August pulled in 6.6 million viewers overall.

Executive producer and Fly on the Wall Entertainment owner Allison Grodner, who has worked on all but the first season of the U.S. version of the Endemol format, says its longevity is partly due to its summer cycle – a move that has made Big Brother event-viewing for dedicated fans – as well as its social media integration and live components.

Allison Grodner

Allison Grodner

The format’s live feed, for example, lets viewers watch the action 24/7 through cameras set up inside the Big Brother house. It’s been a fundamental element of the original concept, but in the early days of the show, not all viewers had access to the Internet or knew how to navigate video streams.

In 2007, however, the show launched the companion series Big Brother: After Dark on Showtime – now airing on Pop – to let viewers tune in live during the program’s late-night hours. Today, the
show has weekly live chats, mobile capabilities for live feeds that cost US$5.99 per month, and even Twitter hashtags that unlock premium content.

“We have actually grown into technology, or technology has caught up with us as we say, because this started as a multi-platform show when it was a lot harder to access,” explains Grodner. “You will see people talking about scheduling their meals, their summer activities and summer jobs around watching live feeds and watching the shows – it’s crazy.”

Giving it a rest 

While the news of American Idol’s fate ignited a wave of commentary on what went wrong, many in the industry agree that the format had a respectable run, and will likely be revived elsewhere in a number of years.

“People who work in the formats business are very mindful of the fact that if you have a show on air, it’s going to come to an end at some point; it can’t go on forever,” says Sony Pictures Television’s Dockery. “But what tends to happen with really great formats where there’s a built-in audience is that the format will go off-air for a year or maybe three years, but it will come back.”

Similarly, FremantleMedia North America’s president of entertainment programming, Trish Kinane – who boarded American Idol as an executive producer in 2013 – doesn’t view the upcoming farewell season as the end of the show Stateside.

American Idol

American Idol

“This format is more than just a TV show, it’s a brand,” says Kinane. “And certainly in America it’s become a cultural phenomenon so I don’t think this is the end of the brand. TV has changed so much and the way people consume television has changed so dramatically that I think it’s probably a good time to just take stock and look at what the future holds.”

The producer adds that Idol’s format refreshments over the years made a blueprint for other reality series. The inclusion of celebrity judges such as Ellen DeGeneres and Steven Tyler, she says, was a “major shift” as the show took a risk in moving away from industry experts.

As for how the competition sustained itself for so long, Kinane says audiences still feel responsible for the successes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, who launched careers out of their Idol turns.

“People like to invest in contestants, and if they have a successful career afterwards I think it just reinforces that, but you’re not going to get one every year. It’s just impossible,” says Kinane, addressing the lack of a recent break-out star.

As a format, Idol is presently active in 17 different territories and has so far generated 241 series across 54 territories. Germany has just commissioned a 13th season with France following with its 12th, and the format is being produced this summer in Angola, Myanmar and the Maldives.

Idol may have ended for now in the U.S. but its exit from the reality landscape may not be as much of an alarm bell as it is a certainty in the television industry.

“You’ve got to move, you’ve got to change, you can’t keep things exactly the same,” says Kinane. “I think if we had stuck with everything in the format exactly the same as it was in 2002, we wouldn’t still be on the air.

“The fact that this show is still on after 15 seasons, we got it about right.”

  • This article first appeared in the current September/October 2015 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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.