The big Saturday night entertainment hits return year after year and, although they often show signs of ill health, producers have become adept at returning them to match fitness. Jon Creamer reports
Stories that one big Saturday night entertainment format or another is finally on the wain are becoming almost a standard newspaper think piece. But still those shows return again and again, clawing back the ratings after having been refreshed with a new lick of paint, a few format tweaks and the ruthless sacking of a once essential star presenter.
Plus Ça Change...
Fremantle’s Britain’s Got Talent returns to ITV1 this month, and though its ratings held well last time out, changes will still be afoot, says its executive producer Richard Holloway. “Every single year we look at it very carefully in terms of what we can do differently the following year. One of the reasons it’s been the success that it’s been is we’ve never once rested on our laurels. We’ve always wanted to make it bigger, better, more interesting, more diverse.”
And it’s that drive in the entertainment genre that’s kept so many big hitting formats coming back year after year. “It’s all about how they are slightly reinvented,” says the BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “Strictly was tailing off about three years ago and people were saying the writing’s on the wall” but with some tweaks “last year was its best ever year.” This month’s launch of the second series of The Voice though will have gone through major changes, keeping the aspects of the show the viewers responded to, and taking an axe to those format points that failed to connect.
The secret is to “make sure you’re constantly refreshing and you’re looking at every aspect of these shows to make sure they’re on their toes, performing the best they can,” says ITV’s director of entertainment and comedy, Elaine Bedell. Not that the refresh has to be fundamental. “For Britain’s Got Talent last year we introduced David Walliams and Alesha Dixon. That gave that series a breath of fresh air and brought a new kind of energy to it,” It’s all about having a light touch. The X Factor lost some of its viewers on its last run out but that doesn’t require a whole scale panic, says Bedell. “It was still averaging nine million viewers last year so there is something in that show that people respond to. You’d be mad to throw the whole thing up and come back with a completely different show. What you hope to do is take a broom to it.”
Attention to reinvention
And that’s crucial because the audience has a lot of big entertainment shows to choose from now. “What the audience will not forgive in a highly competitive market is resting on your laurels,” says Bedell. “You can’t take anything for granted. If you expect to get big audiences you have to fight for their attention.”
Producers have learned that constant reinvention, rather than sticking strictly to the format is the key to longevity. “There’s a change in the way formats work,” says Remarkable’s md, David Flynn. “In the past there was a tendency to feel we have to deliver it in exactly the same way year on year as that’s what works.” But the lessons of reality TV have changed all that. “Those lessons have come to other areas now. The audience wants you to surprise them. Where there would be a worry about confusing them in the past, actually there’s a realisation that surprising audiences is all the better. They’re smarter than people sometimes give them credit for.”
And it’s necessary too. Because launching new primetime shows is no easy feat. Due to DQF cuts, the BBC’s Mark Linsey is soon to have to take on board a 20% drop in his budget. “When that kicks in it is going to be a big challenge for us in finding creative headroom for new ideas and the opportunities to try new ideas out,” he says. “It’s a hard area to land new ideas and a lot of my money is spent already on very successful brands – The Apprentice, Top Gear, Strictly, Graham Norton. It’s not as if I’m complaining but the creative headroom is going to be more challenging.”
But even without budget cuts, big entertainment shows are a high-risk option for broadcasters and indies alike. It’s also a very expensive development prospect. “Entertainment is a difficult genre so some people shy away from it so the pool of ideas and the people out there making it is not as massive as on the factual side,” says Channel 4 head of entertainment, Justin Gorman. “It’s high risk but the rewards can be massive. If you get a Million Pound Drop and it goes to 35 territories then you’re laughing.”
But that’s a tough call for all but the big indie groups with the finances to spend a lot of time and money in development for something that may or may not come off. “It’s a very labour intensive development process so you need to have a resource to fund that,” says Remarkable’s Flynn. “We’ll run through a game show six or seven times before we’ll even show it to a channel. Sometimes we’ll end up not showing it because it doesn’t work.” And even if the commission is landed, the indie’s then spending, and risking, a large chunk of a channel’s money, a terrifying prospect for a nascent company.
Keep it subtle
Because big entertainment shows are such a major gamble, with failure always an option, they don’t tend to change all that much. Most entertainment shows are a subtle twist on what’s come before, because what’s come before is usually what works. “You can learn new things from either your personal history or the history of what’s been on television for the last 40 years,” says entertainment TV veteran, Holloway. “That’s not to say one should always be looking at the past but you should consider one’s history and the history of the genre.” The trick is not to jump too far from what audiences are proven to like. “It needs to feel like a traditional Saturday night affair,” says Linsey. The newness can be as subtle as “who’s presenting or the environment you put it in. It doesn’t take much of a twist to make it feel contemporary and fresh. With the chairs on The Voice there’s a different dimension to a singing talent show. With [upcoming panel show] I Love My Country, it’s a game show with captains and two teams. That’s very traditional and we all get it very easily but what will make it slightly different is the team captains are Micky Flanagan and Frank Skinner who are new to BBC1 Saturday night.”
ITV’s Elaine Bedell, who’s just seen ratings success with Saturday teatime shows Splash and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, says they are subtly different versions of traditional ideas. “Both those shows felt different and fresh. Even though Takeaway is a revival of a show that used to be on five years ago, the show has come back with a lot of new ideas in it. It feels like old fashioned, almost 1970s entertainment but with a delicious modern twist.” Splash may have been critically savaged, but its audiences grew healthily across its run. And that was, says Bedell, because its swimming pool setting gave it that subtle point of difference. “We’d got away from the shiny floor even though it had a lot of shiny floor qualities and values about it. There’s not much that’s new in television but what television is brilliant at is constantly reinventing itself. That’s what you’re looking for all the time – the fresh original takes on shows and on the genre and the mixing of genre and all sorts different ways of coming at things. That’s what both those shows have done in their way.”
That conservatism also means that quite often new shows are literally reworkings of old shows. ITV is bringing both Surprise Surprise and Catchphrase back this year, keeping the essentials of the formats but refreshing them with various modern tweaks. “Surprise Surprise is obviously built around the personality of the person who’s hosting it,” says Bedell. “Holly Willoughby brought a different style to it, and the content is different as a lot of the elements of Surprise Surprise exist in other shows now. You have to think of new ideas and news ways of doing it.”
But new shows do punch through, says Remarkable’s Flynn. And, he says, his quiz show Pointless is a case in point. The show has climbed from daytime to primetime while eschewing the high drama, noise and jeopardy that most major entertainment shows of the last decade have relied on. “The event entertainment shows are great but if you can get a kind of club atmosphere and create a warm place the viewer wants to be, they’ll come back time and time again” as long as those shows can grow organically in daytime before facing the fire of primetime. “We’ve been looking at those shows that are absolutely modern in their conception but have that return to the traditional, warm, clubby atmosphere that many shows used to have.”
The truth is, great ideas will still find a way through, says Holloway. “I always say to all the development people and producers here, ‘if you have a must-have, really good original idea, broadcasters will buy it straight away.’ There’s no question about it.”
Mark Linsey: BBC controller of entertainment commissioning Where’s your commissioning focus? Most of our spend is on BBC1 Saturday night. That’s always an area we want to hear ideas on, particularly in peak. We don’t get enough new ideas in that area. And comedy entertainment on BBC3 is something we’re keen to hear new ideas on. People have to be aware of Saturday night across the year. There’s Strictly and Let’s Dance and we’ve got a singing talent show so people should steer away from those areas. We want to be trying new things in peak on Saturday night. We want people to come to us with ideas that challenge us and make us a bit apprehensive. And we have some teatime shows coming down the line like Reflex with Shane Ritchie. We will be thinking in the middle of this year what other teatime shows we should be developing for Saturday night on BBC1. It has to have humour and purpose – a game that has a beginning, middle and end. The key thing is it’s easy to watch and you can can dip in and out of it. And we want to pilot at least one new Lottery show this year. We will be briefing our needs on that.
Elaine Bedell: ITV director of entertainment and comedy What slots are you looking for ideas for right now?
One slot that we’re returning to entertainment, that used to be an entertainment slot on ITV1 years ago, is Wednesday at 8 o’clock. Since the move of Coronation Street that’s provided us with the opportunity to try new things there. We’re looking for ideas to play there which are heart of the week, heart of the schedule and pre watershed. We’ve done some shiny floor studio shows like All Star Mr and Mrs and we’ve tried factual entertainment but we’re pretty open minded about what could play there. That’s a good place for producers to have a look at and to think quite imaginatively about. It’s an hour long slot and it could be anything as long as it’s in the right price bracket. What about Saturday night entertainment?
We’re doing well but we have a lot of entertainment on Saturday night. We don’t play any drama on Saturday night, we have one show after another so we need a variety of entertainment shows across our Saturday night schedules. We’re making quite a push in comedy entertainment. On ITV2 we’ve got Juice and we’re looking for more comedy formats to play on the main channel perhaps later on Saturday night. We’re looking at a number of formats to play there. It’s not a sitcom slot. We are making a big push in sitcom elsewhere, but this could be a format for comedians.
Justin Gorman: Channel 4 head of entertainment What’s the tone you’re after?
A lot of what we’re doing is naughty, big and noisy but at its heart it’s quite warm. It’s stuff you want to spend time with not stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable because it’s a bit snidey. There’s a bigger heart in what we do now in entertainment and that’s because it’s what people want. We still get into trouble, look at the Big Fat Quiz. But that is still quite warm. So it’s naughty but not nasty. What are you looking for right now?
We’re excited about what we could do to kick off the New Year again. We’re always looking for something that can be stripped and make a bit of a splash. We’ve been talking to indies about getting back in the world of reality. The Bank Job was a weird quiz/reality hybrid and that feels interesting for us. Big events are still something were very excited about. Last year we did Stand Up For Cancer. And then shiny floor stuff. Our Friday nights now are great but we want more shiny floor stuff that’s talent led essentially, with a light format.
Fresh from another Oscar win, Passion Pictures' John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann tell Jon Creamer about their extraordinary run of success in producing feature documentaries
It’s 14 years now since the film arm of animation house Passion Pictures launched its first feature doc, Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September, that went on to win them an Academy Award. Since then, the company’s produced and exec produced a string of movies that have picked up Oscar, Bafta and Grierson nominations and wins from The Age of Stupid, to Restrepo, The Tillman Story and, along with Simon Chinn’s Red Box Films, Project Nim, Raw Films’ Bafta winner The Imposter and this year’s Bafta and Oscar success Searching for Sugar Man.
It’s an incredible hit rate, and all kick started by that first Oscar success. When One Day in September, won the Academy Award “doors flew open left right and centre,” says head of Passion’s film arm, John Battsek. “As a first timer it put us in a position where we could be making big budget feature docs immediately.” But even now “people don’t throw money at you...”
Because it’s still about finding the stories and directors that can make it on the big screen. And part of that is the “scale of the story,” says Andrew Ruhemann, head of the Passion Group. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big multiple cast epic, it’s about the scale of the drama.” It’s also often about finding stories that “fit a feature genre quite well. It’s no surprise with Sugar Man that there are people hovering around saying they want to make it into a drama. And The Imposter too. They’re films where fact really is stranger than fiction.”
They’re stories that are “greater than the sum of their parts” too, says Battsek. “The story transcends itself and resonates above and beyond the core story.” And that means a film can appeal to a wider audience beyond the one interested in the headline subject.
For the producer, it’s then a case of bringing in elements that can help turn that story into a big screen event. “What kind of archive, what kind of music could you use? Audiences traditionally find archive in feature docs completely captivating,” says Battsek. “We think about how many of those ingredients can we bring to elevate the story to the point it feels like cinema.”
And that’s often where a feature doc sized budget comes in. “Sometimes there’s a film you can elevate because you’ve brought cash to it,” says Battsek. “Money can buy you great music and more archive and you can do all sorts of fancy stuff. Often, though, what the money does is buy people who thought they were going to cut a film in 16 weeks the next 16 weeks they need to actually cut the film.”
Because with docs, it’s not always obvious what the story is from the outset, says Battsek. “You don’t really know until it slaps you in the face and that’s normally week 20 of the edit. These films reveal themselves through the edit, there’s always a question mark over whether it’s going to make it as proper cinema.”
The other element that can turn a story into a cinematic experience is, of course, the skill of the filmmaker. “Bart Layton [The Imposter], James Marsh [Man on Wire], Kevin MacDonald. They’re very powerful, talented filmmakers and the extra ingredient that helps give it the legs to make it into a piece of cinema,” says Battsek. And those directors come from all angles. “Some have tons of time on TV, some have made movies and want to do docs, some come out of nowhere. It’s one of the exciting things about it.”
Another exciting thing is that there is a decent amount of money around to make theatrical docs now. “It’s pretty healthy,” says Battsek. “Finance and broadcasters have got a real appetite for it.” And there are plenty of people around looking to invest. “We get our films, for the most part, financed quite significantly out of America – HBO, A&E, ShowTime… There are a bunch of people in the business of financing feature docs. A&E and HBO will fully fund a feature doc to the tune of anywhere between $1m and $1.5m, maybe more. And there’s BBC Films, Film4, Channel 4, BBC and there’s Sky now, NBC Universal. There are ways of combining all these people. Then there are all sorts of different little equity companies. Feature docs in the last decade have become something people are very interested in putting their money into."
And they’ve found an established, and burgeoning route to distribution too. “Our traditional pattern is to make a film, platform it at a big festival - more often than not Sundance - and sell it there,” says Battsek. And that route is getting easier, he says. “Five years ago, you’d probably only sell the US out of Sundance, maybe the UK and maybe Australia too. Now more and more international buyers are picking up films at Sundance and for proper proper money.”
After that, it’s in the hands of the gods. “We try to make the very best possible film and do the best possible deal and work with the distributor to do the best possible campaign. Then when it’s out there, at a certain point you’ve got to let it happen or not happen.”
Starting with Oscar winner One Day In September in 1999, Passion Pictures has been responsible for over 25 theatrical docs including Greg Barker’s Sergio (Oscar shortlisted 2010); Oscar nominated Restrepo; and The Tillman Story (Oscar Shortlisted, 2011). Recently, Passion has been involved with 2013 Bafta Outstanding Debut winner, Bart Layton’s The Imposter, and Malik Bendjelloul’s directorial debut, the Oscar, Sundance and Bafta winning Searching For Sugar Man and the soon to be released Manhunt about the CIA’s long war with Al Qaeda.