As the third annual realscreen Factual Entertainment Forum approaches, realscreen shines the spotlight on the reality genre and the producers making waves within it. Here we talk to Stephen Lambert, founder and CEO of Studio Lambert, producer of the hit format Undercover Boss, as well as Fairy Jobmother, Three in a Bed and the upcoming AMC unscripted series The Pitch.
You’ve recently established partnerships with two UK-based prodcos, Betty and Nutopia, to bring their formats to the U.S. What was the reasoning for that?
There’s no doubt that Britain is the best place in the world to sell a paper idea. The way in which the market is regulated here means that broadcasters are very receptive to new ideas that are not already on tape.
America is receptive to great ideas but particularly great ideas with tape. There’s nothing better in terms of tape than shooting that idea in an English-speaking territory, so if one is able to access new formats from the UK and take them to America, you should have a good business.
If you want to have a big pipeline of UK tape, you can either rely on yourself or do deals with creative UK companies that don’t have a U.S. production arm. Betty and Nutopia are among the most creative independents in the UK who don’t have a relationship with a bigger group. We’ve sold some shows that haven’t come on air yet but are working their way through.
Are there any trends you see emerging in terms of subject matter?
There’s a hunger for authenticity on both sides of the Atlantic. Something like Undercover Boss is a format – what we’re filming wouldn’t be happening unless we were making the program. But we’re capturing it in a documentary way as the boss is going on a genuine journey – he doesn’t know who he’s going to meet and those people don’t know who he is. Audiences can tell when things are too set up and are turning away from that.
When you have a massive hit like an Undercover Boss, how does that impact development?
The onus is on coming up with something fresh because that’s how you grow and no hit lasts forever. But if you have a show that’s working, does that absorb you to the point where you stop doing as much development as you should? That’s a danger. The trouble with development is you can very often [feel that] you spend a lot of time developing ideas that won’t get anywhere, but if you spend that margin of time on a production, you will by and large feel you’re making it better and it’s guaranteed to have positive benefits. I don’t think we’re making that mistake – we’re developing a lot of shows and taking out a lot of shows.
With Seven Days on Channel 4, you tried to bring audience participation into an unscripted property in a unique way that went beyond voting and elimination. Do you think producers haven’t fully tapped into the possibilities for audience engagement?
If you think about it, the two biggest shows in Britain and America are shows that are made in what I call “real time” – what you’re seeing has only just happened and you have the ability to influence what happens next. If viewers like that sense of participation or [having] influence by voting, there must be other ways of building on that. There must be other ways for viewers who care about the characters to be able to influence their behavior. It’s too interesting an idea to just limit it to elimination.