All the excitement in the global television business about the explosion of opportunity for scripted dramas in recent years has overshadowed the prolonged slump in the unscripted marketplace. The activity at Mipcom this time around will test whether “The Wall” can build audiences, “World of Dance” can sashay around the world, “Escape” can get away internationally and “Family Food Fight” can create a stir.
Buyers and sellers are hopeful there is a renewed appetite for untested unscripted formats thanks to the same dynamic that has goosed demand for scripted series: content hungry SVOD outlets that are eager to take big gambles on producers who think big. A number of high-profile new unscripted formats will be shopped during the Oct. 16-19 market.
The heightened production values of scripted dramas these days have raised the bar for reality producers.
“It’s got to be bigger because people are used to seeing a lot of money on screen in drama and expect a similar level of quality,” says Banijay Rights chief Tim Mutimer. “People have so much choice and are not tied to a schedule. In the past they would have watched filler, but there’s less of that now because people will go to an on-demand service.”
Banijay acquired “Survivor” prodco Castaway earlier this year and Mutimer’s team is looking to drive new international business for the evergreen show, which is in its 35th cycle on CBS this season.
A new big-scale survival series is “Escape,” in which a team of engineers are stranded at a crash site and must use the materials at hand to escape. All3Media International will launch it at Mipcom.
“People were saying ‘it’s too big, it’s impossible,’ and I said ‘that’s the way you have to think if you’re going to get the next turn of the wheel,’” says Simon Knight, CEO of Maverick, the U.K. producer making the show. He says the series channels big budget TV – but as blue-chip documentary programming rather than drama.
“A big part of why people will come to it is that you’ve got images you are only used to seeing in a David Attenborough natural history film, but in a survival-adventure series,” he says.
Escape is a theme across unscripted, says Cécile Bertrand, international research manager, at TV research house Eurodata TV Worldwide. “What’s new this summer is the idea of escapism – literally as in ‘The Big Escape’ on NPO3 in the Netherlands, or ‘Breakout,’ which will launch in 2018 on the same channel,” she says. “A few years ago the thing was to gather people together in a room and see what happens, and now it’s about how you get out of the room or situation.”
Another strategy when new shows are not sticking is to try and recapture the buzz of yesteryear, she adds. Just as “Stranger Things” channeled nostalgia in drama, in entertainment the trend can be seen in reboots including “Blind Date” in the U.K., “Three Wise Men,” in Belgium, “Klassfesten” in Sweden or “Sarabanda” in Italy. A new spin on “Fear Factor,” with Ludacris presenting, has also performed well for MTV in the U.S.
Challenging, serialized projects are staple fare in scripted, but in a troubled world, viewers sometimes crave something more lightweight.
“Love Island” was the surprise hit of the summer in the U.K. Putting young, attractive contestants together in a dating competition, it was ITV2’s biggest ever show. It wasn’t an overnight success, taking three seasons to hit home. ITV Studios Global Entertainment launched it several Cannes markets ago but the new-found success means international broadcasters are taking notice, especially given the young demo it attracts.
ITVS formats boss Mike Beale says a slower burn success at home and then internationally is the new normal: “It takes two or three series now to create a hit, you rarely get a one out of the door and if you look at the shows that have travelled, ‘First Dates,’ or ‘Bake Off,’ it has been after a few years.”
Post “Love Island” ITV2 greenlit high-concept entertainment series, “Celebrity Showmance,” from Keshet U.K. It has celebs paired off into unlikely couples and then try to convince the public they are an item using social media. It taps into the fake news zeitgeist, but is not set up as social commentary.
“It’s not a documentary, we’re not lecturing you about how obsessed society is with fake news, it’s fun,” says Keren Shahar, boss of Keshet Intl., which is shopping the format in Cannes. She observes a swing back to entertainment. “We’re seeing a much bigger appetite for unscripted formats than last year so we do think unscripted is coming back.”
The same distributor had the last major market hit with singing competition “Rising Star,” which failed to deliver on its Cannes buzz but was a masterclass in sales and marketing. Keshet and “Rising Star” producer Tedy have a new take on the shiny-floor dance format for Mipcom, “Masters of Dance.” Many predict that dance-driven shows could be the next formats battleground.
While the studios and integrated broadcaster-producer-distributor giants toil to find the next hit, the independents hope they are nimble enough to get away the next big thing.
“For a show to work for the big super indies they need to be able to roll it out multiple territories, and I don’t think they can take the risk on that innovative left field thought that will get the home run,” says Zig Zag Prods’ Danny Fenton.
The Chinese are keen to take a seat at the formats creation table, having never had a global show of note. Israel has established itself alongside the U.K., Netherlands and U.S. South Korea was shaping up to be an international player, but with sales to China curtailed, the country’s progress as an engine of TV formats has been dealt a blow. The U.S. slowed down in terms of format exports as a raft of observational docs dominated programming grids and failed to generate much international interest.
The Netherlands’ reputation remains intact, and John de Mol continues to lead the charge, now as boss of ITV-owned Talpa. Talpa is promising to launch a new reality format at Mipcom. The company will also present itself at the market as “the house of game shows.”
Through connection with Talpa-owned broadcaster SBS, which has a new game show time slot on Tuesday nights, director of formats at Talpa, Annelies Noest, says they are “guaranteed a constant flow of new game shows.” The first to market from that slot is “The Perfect Question,” in which contestants create the questions.
Producer and distributors say commissioners and buyers are increasingly playing it safe, and in terms of what they want, it’s not always obvious that they know themselves.
“I’m not sure people always have a clear vision in mind of what it should be other than ‘big, exciting and new,’” says Talpa’s Noest.
Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and reality for NBC Entertainment, explains why that’s the case. “We want remarkable programs that cut through the clutter and which, based on our business model will scale and return for many years,” he says, noting that he doesn’t think in terms of looking for a specific format. “We’re looking for shows that likely fall into one of two categories: either hugely familiar in type and form. Or, in the rather nebulous category of ‘shows that America doesn’t know it needs yet.’”
Netflix and Amazon, meanwhile, have big plans in unscripted; it’s just not wholly clear what they are. Amazon’s motoring entertainment series “The Grand Tour,” with its SVOD budget and ambition, became its most-watched series around the world. Netflix’s “Ultimate Beastmaster” aroused some initial interest but that quickly fell away. It is sure to try again.
Tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook also want in. Apple has “Carpool Karaoke,” and the others are also looking at entertainment.
“They haven’t yet cracked it but have the money and ability to make it a priority,” says Zig Zag’s Fenton. “I think, in all honesty, the next big hit will as likely come from an OTT player as it will a traditional broadcaster.”