RSS Lite 2022: “Propelling formats” panel discusses industry’s evolution

Formats have been a major driver of the TV industry for decades now, with a growing importance as more global platforms have led to a rise in demand for formats ...
February 9, 2022

Formats have been a major driver of the TV industry for decades now, with a growing importance as more global platforms have led to a rise in demand for formats that can translate to different regions.

Women are playing an increasingly integral role in pushing the formats business forward, and a group of four executives gathered at Realscreen Summit Lite this week to discuss how this slice of the unscripted industry is evolving.

The panel included Westbrook Studios SVP of unscripted TV, Sahara Bushue; Endemol Shine North America chief content officer, Sharon Levy; Bunin/Murray Productions president, Julie Pizzi; and Allison Wallach, head of Fox Alternative Entertainment.

Panelists discussed how, historically, the format business had typically been male-dominated. But Levy pointed out that the industry is changing for the better.

“All of us who pitch now, every one of us who’s out selling, are seeing more and more female faces that we’re pitching to,” Levy said. “And they’re asking of us, they’re demanding of us, that we also think about diversity and inclusion in all of our shows, from cast on down.”

Bushue agreed, saying that when she entered the reality-TV industry more than a decade ago, the majority of network heads and the players purchasing formats overseas were typically men. But having more women at the forefront of the formats industry now is important, she said, as establishing formats overseas can create franchises with spin-offs, specials and regional adaptations around the world, in a way that one-off documentaries and docuseries often cannot.

“We’re trying to create franchises, and if women are at the forefront of those franchises, that’s how we change who’s leading the charge,” Bushue said.

Wallach reflected on how much the industry has evolved since she first started working at Lifetime. At the time, the network branded itself as being a TV destination for women, something that was more novel in the industry.

“It was a priority at that time … [we] had to have female leads, all of our shows, they had to have female showrunners and it was really an important piece of the story then. And that’s when it was like a brand-defining thing to say it was TV for women, because all other TV was not,” Wallach said.

The tone of this entertainment is changing too, as the panel discussed. Bushue observed that reality TV used to be seen as “trashy,” filler entertainment, but has evolved since then to a point where audiences now want to see themselves onscreen, and also see personal growth in reality-TV contestants. She pointed to Temptation Island as one example, noting that the rebooted version of the format is more about contestants’ personal growth. That growth is also reflected, Pizzi said, in reunion specials of cast members from The Real World rehashing elements of the series.

“You can only do so much to re-dress an old format, but as we develop new ones those formats can really reflect the progress of our business, the progress of women in our business, and the journey of our audience and what they expect to see as we tackle issues in a more modern way,” Pizzi said.

The panelists also provided some advice for prospective format pitches. Focusing on a small gamification of a tried-and-true series type, rather than something completely new, is often enough to garner interest, Bushue said. She pointed to The Voice as an example, in which the spinning-chairs gamification updated the singing-contest format.

Pizzi added that pitchers should think about where there’s room for growth in the field, as social experiment, dating, and food series are concepts that can have global appeal, as they’re about universal parts of life.

The panel coincided with the Propelle Content Accelerator for Women opening its call for entries for the 2022 edition. The program is a partnership between Realscreen, Abby Greensfelder’s Everywoman Studios, and Endemol Shine North America to support the careers of up-and-coming women creators by pairing them with industry leaders for workshopping and mentorship. Each of the panelists are mentors working with the accelerator program this year.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.