With The X Factor tiring and The Voice moving, entertainment TV is ripe for innovation. Tim Dams reports on the hunt for elusive hits in a genre that many say has become a victim of its own success
Soon after the successful launch of Celebrity Juice in 2008, the show’s producer Leon Wilson met with ITV2 channel controller Zai Bennett. And he was taken aback when Bennett predicted that the fledgling Keith Lemon vehicle would run for ten years.
“We’re now seven years in, and we may get to 10 years,” says Wilson, now managing director of Talkback, which makes Celebrity Juice as well as entertainment shows such as Through the Keyhole, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI.
Wilson cites this conversation as evidence of the incredible staying power of hit entertainment shows. “If you get it right, a show can run and run,” he says.
Indeed, leading shows like I’m A Celebrity (which launched in 2002), Saturday Night Takeaway (also 2002), The X Factor (2004), Strictly Come Dancing (2004) and Britain’s Got Talent (2007) and The Voice (2012) are notable for their longevity onscreen.
Each consistently ranks at the very top of its channels’ ratings charts. Strictly is the stand out performer this year with audiences approaching 12m on a weekly basis. The Voice, meanwhile, has been the subject of a big money transfer from BBC1 to ITV, where it will air from 2017.
Showing their age
However, several are starting to show signs of their age. Ratings for The X Factor have been a particular concern, with the the Saturday show watched by an average of 5.9m and the final scoring 8.4m viewers – well down from its peak of 19.1m in 2010. I’m A Celebrity, meanwhile, bowed out last month with its lowest series finale in six years.
With a handful of brands dominant for so long, crowding out new shows and innovation, many now say that entertainment TV has become a victim of its own success.
Indie producers also say that it is a tough market to operate in with limited slots available for new entertainment shows to pitch for. There’s a perception that the BBC is less active in the genre, having announced cuts to entertainment spend in November as part of a £150m cost saving plan. At a recent entertainment commissioning briefing to dozens of producers, the corporation focused on just two key slots that it is currently looking to fill (see below for more details). These are, however, two very big commissions to compete for.
As for ITV, producers fear that its indie buying spree – which has seen it snap up entertainment outfits like Talpa Media and Twofour – mean that it is focused on creating new formats inhouse.
Sky, meanwhile, has changed tack in entertainment, and is trying to build a more consistent entertainment offer rather than ploughing most of its resources into one big, expensive show, such as Got to Dance.
And C4 has found success with hybrid entertainment shows, that straddle genres such as factual with entertainment, such as Hunted, and is looking for shows that get out of the studio more and reflect the outside world.
A tough market
The market, acknowledges Wilson, is “broadly tough” for producers. On the positive side, he notes that entertainment remains firmly at the heart of the TV schedules. “The big hitters are still doing quite well, but there has not been a big show coming through since The Voice,” says Wilson.
Instead, the past year has seen a succession of minor new hits, including ITV’s hypnotherapy series You’re Back in the Room and Japanese format Ninja Warrior. There’s been misses too, such as BBC1’s Tumble and Prized Apart, both axed after their first series.
But there are hopes for upcoming formats: ITV has ordered US gameshow 500 Questions, which aired to modest success on ABC in May; while there is strong buzz for BBC1’s upcoming gameshow Can’t Touch This, produced by Northern Ireland’s Stellify Media, owned by Sony Pictures Television.
The BBC: Replacing the Voice
However, the biggest opportunity for years in entertainment has just opened up following ITV’s poaching of The Voice from the BBC.
The BBC is now actively searching for a replacement for 2017. But it’s not necessarily just looking for one show, says BBC acting controller of entertainment commissioning Alan Tyler. “It’s unlikely we will find a show that instantly does the same number of weeks as The Voice.” He expects to launch two, three or even four different shows in the slot to allow the BBC to try out different ideas. “It just makes sense to look at more than one format.”
Tyler says he doesn’t want to be too prescriptive about the kind of shows he is looking for in place of The Voice. “We don’t want to close down any territory.” There are some ‘absolute givens’ though: “It’s a place where, more than any other, the BBC must speak with scale. We must really unify the audience, we have got to have huge heart, and have got to be able to make something work, ideally for the whole family.”
The new shows are also likely to originate in the UK, rather than be imports, after director Tony Hall said the corporation would use savings from The Voice to develop new, home-grown formats.
Tyler insists he’s not phased by the challenge of launching a new show into the harsh glare of Saturday night prime time. “There’s a bit of a feeling that entertainment is really hard and possibly too hard to launch on Saturday night – there is too much choice elsewhere and there’s an absence of the box set moment. But in truth it has always been really tough to land entertainment.”
BBC: opportunity on BBC2
The BBC’s other big priority is a 10pm comedy entertainment format for BBC2. Here Tyler says BBC2 wants to break out of the mould of traditional comedy entertainment formats, such as stand up, interview or panel shows.
“There is nothing wrong with them, they are massively important to the successful ecology of nearly every channel. But we wonder if we are missing something.” Tyler explains: “There has been a history in British comedy entertainment of those kind of disruptive formats that can host a variety of talent and deliver the visceral thrill of the unfiltered that you get watching comedy live.”
He argues that this baton has now been picked up by American TV, via hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and James Corden and with content that can go viral and global. He also cites Saturday Night Live, Friday Night Live and The 11 O’Clock Show as reference points, adding “what we are looking for is “a big, significantly ambitious comedy entertainment vehicle.”
Elsewhere on the BBC, and to demonstrate what he feels is working in terms of entertainment, Tyler picks out Graham Norton “as a talent at the peak of his powers” and cites Only Connect as “resolutely and uncompromisingly intelligent – with a brilliant entertainment performance by Victoria Coren at its core.” He also cites Asian Provocateur and Murder in Successville. Indeed, the latter is cited by many entertainment executives as a show to note for its ‘genre busting’ approach.
ITV: X Factor plans
For ITV, meanwhile, the big question is how it will bed in The Voice, and what its plans are for The X Factor. Some within the network are said to be keen to rest The X Factor, or even to air it every other year to help freshen it up.
This was hinted at by exec producer Richard Holloway in an RTS speech in September, when he admitted that series like The X Factor have a “finite lifespan” but that it was such a successful format, it could be rested and brought back.
In the meantime, ITV has just experimented with a new kind of entertainment show. As Televisual went to press, the broadcaster was set to air The Sound of Music Live. The first time a musical has been broadcast live on national TV in the UK, the show is part of a wider trend for channels reliant on ads to air live events to attract mass audiences.
“Live events are increasingly important to channels like us,” ITV director of entertainment and comedy Elaine Bedell told The Guardian just before the launch of The Sound of Music Live. The key, she added, is to provide “unmissable big events which don’t feel the same if you don’t watch it live.”
Also coming up for ITV is studio entertainment This Time Next Year, produced by (ITV Studios-owned) Twofour. Hosted by Davina McCall, it showcases real life transformations. Twofour is also behind a Top Gear-style celebrity driving format, Drive. There’s also a new magic competition show, The Next Great Magician, set for next summer.
But much of ITV’s entertainment schedule for this year will be recommissions of new shows which launched last year, including Ninja Warrior, You’re Back in the Room, Mission Survive and Play to the Whistle.
Until recently, Sky focused much of its entertainment efforts into one big talent show – Got To Dance – which ran for five years until 2014.
“If I had the budgets of BBC1 and ITV1, then I would be doing shows of that scale all year,” says Sky head of non-scripted commissioning Celia Taylor “So I am trying build a more consistent entertainment offer all year, rather than put all my eggs in one basket.”
New offerings include darts series One Hundred and Eighty with Davina McCall and Freddie Flintoff, a ‘sportotainment’ show that targets the sports heartland of Sky. “There’s room for more in that territory – gutsy, slightly brassy, really good fun entertainment content – it’s very very Sky1,” says Taylor.
Music ent show Bring the Noise, which launched in September, has struggled to find its place. But it’s important for Sky to do things differently, insists Taylor. “We set out to break the mould of the panel show, trying to bring Saturday night entertainment values to a panel show. Intinctively it’s been the right thing to do – it’s bold, ballsy and we went for it.”
The same could be said for Wild Things, which moved out of the studio and into a forest.
Taylor says the talent show market is a mature one, dominated by the big beasts like Strictly and X Factor. And maybe it is time for a different kind of show. “We are a similar time as when Who Wants to be a Millionaire turned up. Although it had high production values, it was small, intense, quiet and one on one.”
Channel 4 looks out
Friday nights have long been the home of C4 entertainment, and the channel’s new entertainment boss Ben Caudell is looking for the next generation of shows that can play in the slot.
Humour is crucial. Caudell wants shows that “we think will be really funny.” Beyond this though, C4 is willing to experiment.
This could mean mixing up genres to create a show like Hunted, a factual and entertainment hybrid. “It’s a show about electronic surveillance. But at its heart is a game show conceit of how far can you run away as quickly as you can.” Or it might mean mashing up an existing show: Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown is a “straight forward show being subverted for laughs by comedians.”
C4’s entertainment staples include The Last Leg and Chatty Man. But entertainment, says Caudell, doesn’t necessarily mean hiring a big studio and filling it with famous names. “We are sort of lacking shows that the reflect the outside world and society today,” he explains. “Where are our shows that in some way resonate with what life is like today?” A new series commissioned with this in mind is spoof news show Britain Today, Tonight starring Kayvan Novak, made by Objective Productions.
Caudell adds: “The hardest shows are the old fashioned ones where a presenter pops up on camera and goes “now it is on to round three where all of our contestants must face this challenge.”
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