Cooking up the next hit format

Justin Scroggie

What’s better than having a hit format on TV? Selling it around the world, of course. Here, Justin Scroggie, CCO and partner of the U.K.-based format consultancy The Format People, talks to Playback ahead of his keynote talk at the Centre for Social Innovation on Tuesday about what it takes to be successful in the international format biz. 

In the description of your talk, you specifically mention Recipe to Riches and Splatalot! as examples of successful international formats. What are some of the key elements that made these series successful outside of Canada?

Recipe to Riches and Splatalot! are very different shows that “travelled” in very different ways. As a branded show, Recipe was free from local content restraints, and in a stronger position in regards to international rights, and could therefore be more easily adapted for production in other countries. Splatalot!, which I was involved with at development stage, offers a different model for travelling, as it was conceived as a coproduction between Canada, the U.K. and Australia from the beginning, with Canada as the hub. Both offer themes that cross borders. Recipe is a journey from local to national, dream to reality, with many challenges to overcome along the way. Splatalot! is all about broad visual comedy, that can be enjoyed with the sound down. But retrospective analysis is much easier than creating success in the first place!

What formats are most popular internationally right now? More importantly, what is the next big format?

The big headline international formats continue to be MasterChef, Idol, The Voice, Survivor, etc. If I knew what the next big format was, I’d be conducting this interview via satellite from my gigantic yacht in the Seychelles. But I question the word “big.” There is so much marketing in TV formats at the moment, a format can be big without being any good, or ultimately a success anywhere.  What I do know is that the next globally successful format will have been worked out properly, trialed quietly on air somewhere for enough time to iron out the kinks, and will probably be based in a genre everyone thought was dead.

If you could capture format magic in a bottle, what would it contain?

A format is a recipe [and] the best recipes are cleverly simple – familiar ingredients combined in a fresh way to create something that is the same – but different. So are the best formats.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see when producers are developing formats? 

The most common mistake I see, especially in game show development, is producers trying to work everything out on a laptop, rather than playing rounds over and over again, in front of people with the freedom to criticize. Only then can you see what doesn’t work, and what was more potential than you thought. I think it is a fear of failure, or being seen to fail.  Yet creatives need to fail, over and over again, in order to make the best stuff.

What formats do you think broadcasters have seen enough of?

Individual formats come and go.  And we tend to judge their success locally, which is often a mistake – just because it didn’t work in the Canada, or the U.S., doesn’t mean it isn’t getting big numbers in a host of other territories. My good friend Dick de Rijk, creator of hit formats such as Deal or No Deal and You Deserve It, says that the genre broadcasters declare to be dead are exactly where you should developing to find the next hit.  TV shows have to die in order to be reinvented.

You’re keynoting a one-day seminar this week on international formats – what is a good example of a hard-earned lesson you will be sharing with your audience? 

I have a number of very hard-earned lessons to share with the delegates at our formats seminar on Tuesday!  But here are two. First, it’s almost impossible to sell a show to a foreign broadcaster that you haven’t already made for in your own country.  You have to create shows with local appeal, but with the DNA of international potential too. Secondly, a format is a show, scripted or unscripted, that somebody else wants to buy and adapt in their own country.  Otherwise it is not a format.