Updated: Oct 6, 2020
In case you missed our panel session with the Kings and Queens of formats (you can catch up here), I took notes so you didn't have to!
Here's your 5 minute guide to creating fabulous formats.
David Barbour, Executive Producer, 'The Block'
Chloe Rickard, COO of Jungle Entertainment
Deb Stewart, Executive Producer, ITV ('The Chase', 'Think Tank' and 'Beat the Chasers')
Maz Farrelly, Creative Strategist, BBCWW ('Q&A', 'The X Factor', 'The Celebrity Apprentice', 'Dancing With The Stars', 'Big Brother')
Q. How do you develop a format?
You have to just get started, shoot things and refine your ideas. I’ve made endless pilots and from them I’ve learned what’s shit, what works and what doesn’t.
Are you going too far to work in this format? Who is your audience? People scatter gun too wide – just make the story or the idea work, and then find the right person to make it.
I love formats; they employ people, they can go around the world and they can keep going.
So you can either do the same as everyone else and do it better. Or do the exact opposite. Think about what exists at the moment that you can tap into - ideas are everywhere. Sometimes the idea is sitting around and you just need to spot it and turn it into a format.
In unscripted you need to create events - hope is not a strategy.
No one has an organic wedding….. You plan everything, the same is true with a TV series.
People say drama will happen but my question is why? How can you guarantee that?
In my view when you’re thinking about formats in Scripted – it’s all about the characters you’ve written and stuff happens to them. In Unscripted it’s the stuff that happens, the format points, the challenges and you can throw almost anyone in and it will still work.
Any successful quiz show has probably had 2 years in development. If you have an idea for a game, start playing it and through that you’ll refine it. The more you play the more variables you find and the more you can strengthen the format.
Understand your format, know what the heart is, know what is too much for the format to take before it jumps the shark, to use a common expression
A good quiz show relies on its core idea and should enable people to play along. But it’s the execution that makes it great. Whether it’s in a big arena or an intimate setting, get the setting right.
The integrity of the questions and the process of verifying and programming is important – you can’t have flaws in the system, or you will undermine the integrity.
Visually it needs to be good to watch – sumptuous. You need to enjoy immersing yourself. It’s also got to be reasonable easy to understand and therefore to play along. Think about how intellectually hard do you want it to be?
Then you need a great end game and you need to build to that.
The Chase – is a simple format that looks great, has room for humour and a fantastic end game.
With No Activity and Squinters, both are narrative comedy, but what makes them unique is the form as much as the story.
No Activity is a series of 2 handers. The focus was allowing great comic performers the space to adlib with each other. We have limited locations and limited camera moves, so this means we focus on the dialogue and adlibs.
We started with a 10 min pilot, shot in the basement of our office, and that demonstrated the essence.
In Australia we shot a 6 week show in 9 days for the first season.
Q. How do you pitch a format?
When you’re a producer you have to produce your pitch. You’ve got to think what will get it over the line. Be strategic about your pitch.
Make it good for them.
Know what they’re looking for, know what worked for them last night and what didn’t. What is the network’s problem? Which audience are they trying to reach?
You have to have a good one pager with a great title and a great visual.
What is your idea? Describe it in 1 sentence e.g The Weakest Link is “This is a quiz show and at the end of each round you vote off the person who is your greatest competition or the weakest link”
Why are you a good pair of hands to make it?
With narrative projects you can make a channel on YouTube to showcase your ideas.
When we’re pitching a comedy we do both a script and proof of concept. Whatever can show the comic tone the best.
In drama - we have a log line, a series outline, and then we write a pilot. We also attach key talent; in drama that’s a new thing – broadcasters are now expecting it to be fully packaged.
Getting something to one page is torturous. It’s tough. But it’s the best way for you to refine your idea. Your 1 line should tell you want the show is.
Crate a picture in that 1 line that makes people go – that’s interesting.
But then it’s about more than that first page. They’ll ask questions beyond that 1st page and you need to know the answers. You need to mitigate their risk. You need to know what happens, key points,
The Block has 50 episodes in a series – how do the scenes relate over the entire series.
You need a framework. The Block is a simple framework. But how do you fill 50 episodes with that? Here’s how…
How do I know I’m going to get my money back?
In terms of a presenter, if you go in with a particular host in mind it can kill the show – if the network doesn’t like that person. It’s much better to say, “someone like….”
You have to really believe in it yourself so you can answer every question with confidence.
Know the mechanic. More often than not, the Network know who they want to host a quiz series and we have to teach the show to them
Q. How do you take a format overseas? Or bring one into Australia?
With No Activity the Australian creators (Trent & Patrick) went to the US to pitch and the Australian show has been the best pitching tool. We’re not just selling the concept but the voices behind it.
They went went to the US to make the series there – which is quite unusual. They relished being able to take a show that was low budget in Australia, to the bells and whistles of the US; big writers’ rooms, joke writers, great cast. This made sure that the jokes landed for the US market. But it was in their voice and they maintained the creative vision.
Selling formats in the US can be soul destroying. They make you feel great, then you never get a second call. You can’t get in without an agent. They feedback to the agent not directly to you so trying to make changes for them is really hard. It was a bizarre experience.
Format rights holders are very protective. They understand you need to adapt for a local market but it’s their baby and they’re passionate about it. They don’t want to hand it over and see some other show appear, so it’s demanding but doable.
Q. Can a format be flexible?
We learn a lot from what other nationalities do with our format and we bring it back and adapt it.
Complacency is the enemy of a long running show. How you can keep it fresh and alive without breaking your format? You need to have a clear idea of how to stretch but not break your format.
Beat the Chasers, where you see all the Chasers play together, was developed by Michael Kelpie (POTATO) and was about 2 years in the making.
You look at the scale of it and it makes you go wow! It’s a game being played in an arena. The scale of the drama makes it exciting, yet it is a simple idea that doesn’t actually use all of the studio space available
The interesting and unique aspect of this show is that the set is in Sydney and the control room is in Melbourne.
We tried everything to keep the studio shoot in Melbourne but with the lockdown it ended up being easier to send the set to Sydney.
All of the contestants, host etc are in Sydney but the game engine, question team, producers and control room staff are in Melbourne. This shows how versatile producers need to be in difficult times.
Watch the entire session on ACMI's YouTube Channel.
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