MIPFormats ’16: Making U.S. hits travel

During a session at MIPFormats in Cannes, execs behind the international roll-outs for A&E's 60 Days In and Viacom's Lip Sync Battle (pictured) discussed turning American unscripted hits into globe-trotting formats.
April 3, 2016

During a session at MIPFormats in Cannes on Saturday (April 2) heralding a “New Creative Boom in the U.S.,” execs behind the international roll-outs for A&E’s 60 Days In and Viacom’s Lip Sync Battle (pictured) discussed turning American unscripted hits into globe-trotting formats.

The former series, produced for A&E by Lucky 8 Productions and renewed for a second season practically immediately after the first season’s premiere in early March, follows participants who volunteer to go “undercover” as inmates in an Indiana jail, with their real identities only known by the local sheriff. The undercover inmates observe real prison life as it unfolds before them while they spend two months behind bars.

According to the team representing A+E Networks on the session – Brad Holcman, senior director of non-fiction and alternative programming at A&E; Hayley Babcock, head of formats and international programming and production for A+E Networks and Ellen Lovejoy, vice president of international content sales for A+E – the show’s innate drama and social message translates across borders and should resonate in multiple markets globally. Indeed, a UK production company is already at work on a version for the British market.

The team told moderator Anna Carugati of World Screen that the keys to launching the format in a new territory are finding a law enforcement official who wants to create change in the justice system in his or her community, and casting participants who have their own motivations for experiencing prison life.

“They have to have a personal reason that makes them want to go in,” said Babcock. “What you’re really watching are their personal journeys.”

Similar to the fixed rig docuseries dominating UK television for the past several years, 60 Days In incorporates use of up to 100 cameras – some in plain view, as the production crew is filming in the prison under the guise of shooting a doc on “first-timer” inmates, and hidden camera and security camera footage in other cases.

Holcman said that the show’s key premise – having individuals go undercover in certain environments to expose the harsh realities within them – can be applied to myriad situations and that A&E is exploring taking the concept into different worlds.

On the lighter side of the American unscripted spectrum, Spike’s smash hit Lip Sync Battle has already sold into 30 territories via parent company Viacom’s international arm. According to Caroline Beaton, senior vice president of international program sales at Viacom International Media Networks, with many of the performances from the first season of the U.S. series going viral, the show’s global visibility has made it a relatively easy sell around the world.

Still, even with its great concept of having celebs lip-sync to songs “against type” (such as Anne Hathaway tackling Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”), it’s the performances that make the program pop. And for some territories, accessing the right type of talent might be more difficult than in the U.S.

“The first challenge was talent,” said veteran UK producer Malcolm Gerrie, CEO and MD at Whizz Kid Entertainment and EP of the UK version of Lip Sync Battle, airing on Channel 5. “We struggled to get [the big] names in the beginning.”

For him, his “light bulb moment” was in “going down the comedy route.” With the performances often having a comic nature, Gerrie thought that casting top and up-and-coming comedians for the first season in the UK would both set his version apart from the American original, and also bring in the young audience that both he and Channel 5 were after.

Ben Frow [C5's director of programs] was determined to break the mold,” said Gerrie, giving credit to C5 and Viacom for exhibiting patience while the UK team got the balance right for its first season. The show has been renewed for a second season on C5 and a third on Spike.

While Beaton said Viacom has a comprehensive production bible to ensure that all territories taking on the show will have a consistent look and feel, Gerrie said producers and broadcasters interested in doing Battle should also note that while it’s important to get the right talent to take part, convincing the teams behind the talent to sign on shouldn’t be difficult.

While in many instances, bringing talent on board for a project could conceivably tie them up for weeks, for Lip Sync Battle, “It’s a day, and you might even do it in a half-day.”

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