Television tweaks not for meek

Brit TV execs on how, and why, it worked for their shows

It’s a conundrum faced by all showrunners: When is it right to tweak a show?

The BBC this fall revamped the eighth season of “Strictly Come Dancing,” one of the world’s most successful reality formats, which airs in various versions in 75 countries.

“Strictly” — known as “Dancing With the Stars” in the U.S. where it airs on ABC — had been bested in the ratings the previous year by Simon Cowell’s talent show “The X Factor” on ITV1. But it still regularly attracted more than 30% of the TV audience.

New exec producer Moira Ross introduced a professional dance group; changed the set, lighting and graphics; and altered the system of audience voting.

Viewership has grown to 11.75 million each week, some 1 million higher than last year. (It’s still behind the “X Factor’s” 13.7 million, but the two shows are not running head to head this season.)

Katie Taylor, head of entertainment and events at BBC Vision, who oversees “Strictly,” says, “Even if the show has been successful, you have to ask: ‘What can I do to raise the bar and keep the audience on the edge of its seat?’?”

A slew of other Brit shows are similarly dealing with revamps, for various reasons. Lee Connolly, acting head of entertainment series and events at ITV Studios, says “Viewers think the show is theirs, and it is theirs — we make it for them,” he says. “And if you take a part of it away, then they can be quite disgruntled. So you don’t want to mess about too much, but you’ve got to keep refreshing it.”

When Simon Amstell, the host of BBC2’s comedic music quiz “Never Mind the Buzzcocks,” left after three years for another job, Taylor opted to bring in a different guest host each week. “The writers and the producers really liked it because each week they could write for a different comic voice,” Taylor says.

Karl Warner, exec editor of entertainment commissioning at the BBC, launched an archive clipshow on youth-skewed BBC3, “Russell Howard’s Good News,” produced by Avalon. But after it debuted, he inserted a new element. “It is quite a relentless pace, so we developed this idea with the production company to interview someone two-thirds of the way through the show, and that provided us with a gear-change, and gave the audience a chance to take a breath,” he says.

Richard Ackerman, series producer for Channel 4 chatshow “Alan Carr: Chatty Man,” reminds all producers and execs: “You should never be arrogant enough to just say, ‘I am right,’ and close yourself off to everybody else’s suggestions.” But there are dangers in changing a long-running format. ” ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is often a fair maxim,” he says.

Audience research has always been valuable, but the Internet has provided another tool by providing immediate aud feedback. Changes can be made quickly, but ITV’s Connolly reminds it is important to avoid knee-jerk reactions and to be confident in producers’ expertise.

Another consideration is the owner of the format rights, who may have veto power over changes. Whizz Kid Entertainment CEO Malcolm Gerrie, who produced the international format “Let’s Dance,” says rights holders should not be overly restrictive: “You have to be sensitive to the demands of the local market.”

The BBC, for one, is keen to trade ideas with the producers of its formats abroad.

Taylor recently met the German producers of “Strictly,” who wanted to see how the BBC had introduced politicians into the show — former government minister Ann Widdecombe danced in the last British series.

They were also looking at the format of the new-look results show, with a view to adopting it.

“I think it is encouraging that the mothership, which came up with the idea, is constantly refreshing it,” Taylor says.

She has also heard from the Israeli producers of the show, who have just introduced the first same-sex dance couple.

“Who knows? That might be something we might do in future series,” Taylor says.

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