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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Keeping it simple

Canadian buyers, producers and distributors discussed the appeal of simple formats and the key to exporting worldwide at the Canadian Media Producers Association’s Prime Time Online event.

Jennifer Dettman, executive director of unscripted content, CBC
We have pivoted our business to put more into developing new and original formats. For several years now, with both our Canadian producers and international partners, we have said a format doesn’t need to have a track record, it can be a paper format and we can work and develop it with you. Looking at our development slate today, 75% of formats are original ideas and the other 25% are existing formats.

For big entertainment formats, we always ask how it will stand out among other shows. It’s stating the obvious but that space is incredibly competitive, with so much content from the American channels and streamers coming in. We want something that rises above that noise. A format that is simple, distinct and ambitious works best. If we have those three things, that is more than half the battle these days.

Our priority is inclusivity. And, more in general, you’ve got to take a bit of a leap and see what you can do for your audience. You’ve also got to invest some dollars into shows that might be a bit of a flyer and that you might need to see where it goes.

Adam Steinman, VP of creative, formats, development and sales, Warner Bros International Television Production
I hate that people use this word all the time, but a sellable format needs to be scalable. A format like The Bachelor, which is, of course, a show in the US that has a huge budget, needs to work on a Canadian budget. It also needs to be well-known and achievable. On top of that, the Canadian-produced version needs to look as good as the original.

A big network show in the US doesn’t really work as a format in Canada because Canadian audiences are seeing the original simulcast. The exception to that is if it’s a cool, buzzy, critical darling.

The best formats are simple. One of my favourite formats of all time is airport-set reality series Hello Goodbye, originally produced by Netherlands- and Belgium-based BlazHoffski. There is truly nothing more iconic or nothing that triggers emotions more than seeing someone at the airport. It felt like something that had strong storytelling, as well as tapping into the Canadian experience.

The key in Canada is that a format needs to reflect the Canadian experience and how it differs from the rest of the world.

Michela Di Mondo, senior VP, Canada, international, Fremantle
When it comes to developing a format, thinking about something different that makes you curious and then following that curiosity would be my advice. The magic happens when you’re culturally relevant but also providing a fresh perspective.

Overall, when it comes to formats, we look as these four pillars: is it repeatable, is it scalable, is it transferable and is it promotable? But the biggest question we ask is: why do Canadians want to watch this show? Canadians want to see their families represented in shows and that is what really drives how we look at formats. It’s also about thinking whether that version would work in English in French Canada.

I always have my eye out for Canadian formats. One of my favourites was Who Lives Here?. It is a production that has gone out in more than nine territories and is a huge success in Sweden. It’s simple, it’s clear and it hits on what people want to know: what’s going on behind the curtains.

Laura Michalchyshyn, chief creative officer and co-president, Blue Ant Studios
RuPaul’s Drag Race is an example of an exportable format. In Canada, we have just announced season two of Canada’s Drag Race on Crave. In the US, it’s in its 13th season and it has been franchised in nine countries including Canada and the US with multiple spin-offs.

The show taps into the zeitgeist and everything we love about inclusion and diversity, as well as addressing LGBTQ+ communities. It has created a level playing field and allows people to celebrate their differences.

As a country, we relied on original concepts much more until a decade ago and we had great strength in creating doc series and dramas. Formats, for us, are a new beast, and it’s exciting. We’re doing a good job of catching up on the rest of the world, such as Scandinavia.

Great partnerships and finding the right producer and distributor are crucial, and it takes time and money. But we have realised we have to invest in that. Drag Race Canada and Life Below Zero, which is a BBC Studios format, are examples of great formats that have done well for us in Canada.