Marc Pos, the creator and producer of “The Traitors,” may have taken six years to sell his Dutch psychological format, but his patience has been rewarded. Not only was the reality show a huge hit when it eventually landed on RTL4 in the Netherlands, but it’s beginning to take Europe and the rest of the world by storm.
Sold to a dozen territories upon its launch on the Dutch network in 2021, the U.S. version of “The Traitors,” hosted by Alan Cumming, will drop on NBC’s streamer Peacock on Jan. 12 with a mix of celebrity and civilian contestants. Initially developed by Pos’ All3Media-owned IDTV and RTL creative unit, the social experiment sees contestants move into a castle and work as a team to complete a series of dramatic and challenging missions in order to earn money for the prize pot. However, some of them are secretly traitors who will attempt to eliminate loyal contestants through treachery and deceit.
After a banner linear broadcast in the U.K. in November and December, the Studio Lambert-produced “The Traitors” was the second-most streamed show behind the long-running soap opera “EastEnders” on BBC streamer iPlayer during the holiday period. Meanwhile, the French version marked the highest ratings for an entertainment format in two decades on M6. Pos spoke to Variety about the genesis of the concept, its adaptations and why he thinks the timing was ripe for “The Traitors” to click with contemporary audiences.
Did you ever imagine this show would become such a sensation?
Well, I first developed it in 2014 and we pitched for six years, along with IDTV’s creative Jasper Hoogendoorn. Nobody wanted to have it over here. Now it’s like this romantic success story, and yet no one wanted it back then. But I continued doing tests, pilots, and kept believing in it, and when we finally created this series in the Netherlands, it became a hit. At the end, Peter van der Vorst, RTL4’s program director started believing in the format. In the 11 months that followed the Dutch premiere, we sold the format to 11 countries and by the end of the year we’ll have it sold to 20 countries.
Where did the idea come from?
The starting point was a book I read in 2014 which was about an old 17th century vessel in the Netherlands which crashed into an island and led to a mutiny. It was a real story and those people killed each other. Nobody knew at that time, when they came to the island, who was in favor of the mutiny and who wasn’t. The core of this story is that people didn’t trust each other and what it said is that people can’t live in a dishonest world. I started thinking about how to create a world where people can’t trust each other and put them in a bubble. At first I thought I could even make a documentary or a movie about this, but then I realized I could create an entertainment program out of that behavior. My first idea was to do it on a ship in Australia, and if somebody had to be out of the game, he or she had to jump into the water and swim to an island, but then I thought it would be too difficult to produce.
Why do you think people were so hesitant about commissioning “The Traitors” initially?
Well, normally, when you create this kind of program, like “The Mole” [for example], it’s a sort of guessing game for viewers who have to find out who the mole is. But in the case of “The Traitors,” viewers know right away who the traitors are. People at TV channels kept telling me that if I know who the [traitors] are, there’s no point. But as it turns out, if you produce a show in a good manner, then it becomes a success everywhere!
In this show, we get to watch these contestants act like mice in a lab experiment that’s looking at social behavior.
It’s like when you’re on safari, you see the lions, you see everything from a distance, and that’s what’s fascinating. That’s why I enjoy it. And I think the concept captures the zeitgeist of our society today. We’re living in a world where social media is more and more present. What can we trust? And who can we trust? I think it’s a good thing that this show took so long to get made because it’s arrived at the right time.
Are you a psychology major?
No, I studied at the Dutch Film Academy. I’m a director. I was the first director of “Big Brother” in the Netherlands. I also directed the Eurovision Song Contest. Sometimes I direct, but for the last 10 years I’ve been leading creative companies.
What did you think of the U.K. adaptation, which has proved so successful?
We were really, really, really blown away. In the Netherlands, we made the show with celebrities and one of the things they changed in the U.K. was to make it with “normal people.” And the cast is so fantastic in the U.K. It’s great to see these regular people who aren’t really used to this kind of psychological adventure, so to speak.
How involved were you in the U.K. version?
We were involved through the consultancy department that I created in Amsterdam and through our London-based All3Media International. We weren’t involved in the production but we gave [them] our vision. It’s a difficult project to create and to produce so I wanted the people who were involved in the Dutch production to be able to share their experience and provide as much as help and advice as needed to the Studio Lambert folks. But they’re fantastic experts in the U.K. and they did it themselves. We just gave our seven years of knowledge about this format.
Part of what made the BBC show so brilliant was the scale of the physical challenges. Was that the same on RTL4? Is that important for other adaptations of the format?
Yes, the challenges have to be big. The psychology behind it is that the hand that can help you climb the mountain can kill you the next night. They have to play this game together because they always need each other to earn something. So that’s twisting their minds as well, because they can’t trust anyone but themselves.
How significant is the host to this format?
It’s very significant because the host is not only hosting for viewers, he or she is also there for the contestants. And the host is not there very much, and has to be careful not to manipulate the game, influence viewers, or spark doubts within the minds of contestants who are in their bubble. But when they’re there they have to be kind of a friendly yet intimidating figure. And it’s difficult to be friendly and intimidating at the same time.
So “The Traitors” is totally a Machiavellian show.
Oh yes, Machiavelli is definitely flying over the round table!
The format is heading to the U.S., which is a very tough market for unscripted entertainment. How do you think it will fare?
It’s worked in Norway, in France, in Belgium, in the Netherlands. Now it works in the U.K. Why wouldn’t it work in the U.S.? That’d be strange [if it didn’t]. I’m very confident it will work there because it’s about [the worst qualities] of humankind and I think the Americans are not excluded from this sentiment!