T’other evening I attended a BAFTA panel session on ‘The Great British Format’.
Eh? (you might ask.)
Kate Phillips, Creative Director of Formats at BBC Worldwide, defined a format as “the rules you put on an idea,” later noting that “there is a shocking amount of sh*t out there.”
Kelly Webb-Lamb, Former Managing Director at Shine TV, was looser, suggesting that a format is “a construct programme makers create to put contributors through […] to deliver your story and drama.”
Nick Mather, Creative Director at Endemol Shine, however, dubbed formats “a fail-safe” to ensure “the beats you’ve constructed always deliver a story.”
Whilst Matt Pritchard, Development Director at Twofour Group, took a more pragmatic stance – “it you can sell it, it’s a format.”
If you weren’t distracted by the blinding job titles of the panellists, in short, a format is an idea, with some structure, that you might sell.
But a format isn’t just a creative idea, it also comes with a bible of execution, complete with all the tools to create high, recognisable production values (the set designs, construction manual, graphics, music, casting process, camera rigging techniques, etc. etc.), all of which makes an idea a sellable product.
The panel went on to examine how their own babies were born. And it turns out it’s an unpredictable labour of love. Nick noted that Pointless started with a basic mechanic – Family Fortunes in reverse – before a structure was built around it, whereas Matt said The Chase was built around the Disney storytelling formula of bad guy vs. good guy, before being retrofitted with its quiz-show components.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #1: A format is always we; ideas are teams.
Kelly went on to chat about her experiences on The Island with Bear Grylls and Hunted – two innovative new ‘social experiment’ formats, both using an embedded crew. She emphasised the importance of authenticity – a buzzword that’s getting a lot of airtime – but also stressed the difficulty of pitching a show which relies on reality unfolding organically, rather than formatted beat points. This loss of control is daunting, but potentially groundbreaking, with formats such as The Island instead revolving around the location, when and where food is available, the availability of water, shooting mechanisms and casting.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #2: All formats have to ask a question.
So when pitching, how important is a sizzle tape? Kate mentioned that although commissioners now expect a tape, there have been occasions when commissions have resulted from a chat. This depends on your relationship with commissioners and involves a heck of a lot of trust. Kelly affirms this, but stresses that the idea should always come first, the sizzle second.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #3: You cannot protect or copyright your ideas; share them with everyone as that’s the only way they’ll develop.
Turns out, everything comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and building trust. Matt noted that all development teams are likely coming up with the same ideas at the same time, so a pitch usually comes down to the right circumstances.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #4: Failure rate for format development is massive. “It’s a bit like Willy Wonka and finding the golden ticket”.
So what are these big dogs looking for when hiring future developers? Matt said he is always looking for young, hungry talent with fresh ideas, but also mentioned he looks for senior hires with production experience they can bring to the table. Kate and Kelly stressed the importance of varying up a developer’s career, suggesting that companies should take their junior talent to pitches and allow them to try production roles too.
With all the ‘old’ formats still dominating the primetime schedules, another topic of note was how to keep formats fresh. Nick stressed constant audience feedback as a major factor, and spoke of the excitement of being able to tweak a live series in real time, episode by episode. Kate hailed developers for keeping formats fresh, celebrating the fact that old formats are still delivering great ratings, “great shows continue to be great”.
Another big draw of creating formats is the potential for international sales, and The Great British Bake Off was hailed as an example of how a British format can translate across shores. Yes there’s still a tent, workstations and pastel bunting, but there are also tweaks such as Germany’s ‘Bachelor Week’ which features saucy cakes with tits and bums, and Israel’s opening dance number.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #5: For an international hit, try to make formats that can be delivered at different budgets.
The right talent will often get you a commission, but it depends on the show. Saturday night entertainment needs a household name the audience can connect with, and some shows are made great by their hosts (e.g. Ann Robinson and The Weakest Link). Kelly admits that Bear got The Island commissioned.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #6: Ratings matter more than anything; ultimately the audience is always right.
Format trends going forward seem to be social experiments, open-ended stories and a drive for greater authenticity. Kelly stressed the importance of not making shows around the latest technology, but instead allowing technological advances to make your ideas a reality. The guests also recommended going back to the 70s and 80s for format inspiration.
TOP TIP OF THE EVENING #7: Indifference is the enemy, not contempt.
An inspirational kick-start to the year.