The most successful unscripted series launch in the U.S. in years was inspired by a chance sighting of a pleather kangaroo in a Studio City Thai restaurant.
This and other incredible truths emerged during a case study of the comedic singing competition and massive unscripted hit The Masked Singer, held at Realscreen West in Santa Monica on Wednesday (June 5).
Moderated by Variety’s Michael Schneider, the session brought together executive producer Craig Plestis of Smart Dog Media, panelist Robin Thicke, Fox alternative president Rob Wade and Nahee Kim, managing director of content and channels business for MBC America.
Adapted from a South Korean format, The Masked Singer has emerged as something of a phenomenon in the U.S., with its debut episode clocking in more than 17 million multi-platform viewers. The premise — a participant in an outlandish, identity-obscuring outfit belts out a tune and the panelists are tasked with guessing their identity — is incredibly simple, and that, coupled with the spectacle and intrinsic comedic elements, has made the show a social media sensation as well.
Plestis told Realscreen West delegates that he first came upon the format while at dinner with his daughter at a Studio City Thai restaurant. As TV monitors blinked in the background, Plestis’s daughter implored him to take a look at what was unfolding on the screen.
“No one was eating their dinner, they were all watching the show. And on the screen was a black pleather kangaroo and you could tell right away that it was a guessing game.”
From there, Plestis consulted “the power of Google” and found Nahee Kim, who worked for the U.S. subsidiary of South Korea’s MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.), which aired the original version of the format as The King of Mask Singer. That show, Kim told delegates, spun off from a comedic segment of a South Korean Sunday night program.
Putting together a sizzle over the course of a weekend, Plestis said he took the project to “a couple of other places but being completely honest, no one got it.” Upon taking it to Wade at Fox, the series found its U.S. home.
“He played the sizzle and I responded to it right away,” said Wade. The Fox exec added that he saw it as a unique twist on the celebrity singing competition, a genre that “nobody had really quite cracked.
“That’s what spoke to me the most. And then the costumes themselves were super camp and super visual, and that appealed to me.”
From there it was time to get the panelists on board. Thicke told the audience he also responded to the idea fairly quickly.
“It’s comedy, a guessing game and it’s celebrities, and America loves celebrities,” he said. “So I knew it was going to work, unless they messed it up.”
Assorted production challenges with the costumes — a cavernous mask that provided too much echo among them — emerged, and secrecy on set was paramount, with Thicke saying, “I never saw an agent or a publicist who might represent anyone,” and Plestis took inspiration from the Thai version’s practice of even putting managers and handlers in costume backstage.
But, as the strong performance of the premiere proved, U.S. audiences took to the format enthusiastically, and Fox has responded by greenlighting two more seasons, with the second season set for fall, and the third to have its premiere with the Super Bowl as its lead-in.
“I obviously fought hard for it,” said Wade about the Super Bowl score. “As big as the show has been and as happy as we are at Fox with the ratings so far, this is a country of 350 million and with all the fragmentation of the media, we still have to remember there are a lot of people who haven’t seen the show. The Super Bowl is the last bastion of being able to pull in 100 million viewers.”
While panelists didn’t reveal much about tweaks and changes to the format for the upcoming seasons, one change is already common knowledge — the show will be produced in-house by the newly created Fox Alternative Entertainment studio, replacing first season prodco Endemol Shine North America. Plestis will remain as an EP, while Endemol Shine will produce the format in other territories.
As seen with other broadcast network alternative studios such as NBCUniversal’s operation, the move is designed to bring costs down, increase revenues and provide the network with a firmer hold on IP that can be exploited globally.
“There are a number of new buyers coming into the market and that is stretching the producer community,” said Wade of the move, adding that it will give Fox the ability to “have more control of our destiny and our content.”
(Photo by Nelson Blanton)