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Theme Festival - Factual Entertainment

Programming Profile

Matters of factual entertainment


Factual entertainment programming continues to evolve at pace as competition increases, audience expectations rise and new hybrid formats emerge.


Ask a TV executive to define factual entertainment and they’ll probably start by name-checking property, food, reality and lifestyle shows. But most will also tell you that the genre has a chameleon-like quality that makes it difficult to pin down precisely.


For some, it incorporates true crime, while for others it includes social experiments like Married At First Sight. If the identifying characteristics of a fact ent show are that it is character-led and has some kind of ‘take-out’ for the audience, then natural history, survival and engineering shows can be factual entertainment.


Wherever the boundary lies, however, factual entertainment has emerged from Covid-19 in robust shape. Capable of travelling internationally either as formats or completed shows, in-demand titles can play a pivotal role as schedule events or daytime workhorses. Rather than fading away after a few years of relentless exposure, the very best titles seem to draw strength from longevity – enabling IP owners to launch multiple spin-offs or supersize their franchises.


Jan Salling, head of BBC Studios Nordics formats and production, says the Bake Off brand is still performing strongly in the three Scandinavian markets where it has been localised.


Dubai Hustle
Dubai Hustle

“Ten years in, it can still command a 70% share in Saturday night primetime for DR Denmark. But that’s not all. Bake Off is also the most consumed show on DR’s VoD service and has seen success with a junior version, which extends the franchise into weekday primetime.”


Canadian producer Big Coat Media also has an especially durable franchise in the shape of property-based show Love It Or List It, which recently broke through 200 episodes in its domestic market and has also spawned variants like Vacation Homes. Marketed internationally by Beyond Rights, the show has given birth to local versions in the UK, Australia, France and Finland, the latter two coming as recently as 2021. All this in addition to extensive tape sales.


Format creator and exec producer Maria Armstrong says the continued strength of the show is down to its universality: “There isn’t a home owner who hasn’t reached a point where it feels like their house isn’t working for them anymore. The tension between whether to move or to renovate gives the show the jeopardy of a procedural drama.”


Banijay arguably has the ultimate fact ent franchise in the shape of MasterChef, now up to 500 seasons including its various spin-offs.


Rat in the Kitchen
Rat in the Kitchen

Explaining the enduring appeal of the show, Banijay’s global head of content operations, Lucas Green, says: “Broadcasters like the fact it is an established brand, but the real beauty of MasterChef is that it is so flexible. Yes, it’s about great food, but it’s also a vehicle for authentic storytelling. MasterChef Junior, MasterChef Celebrity and MasterChef: The Professionals explore different life stages and themes. Now Young MasterChef on BBC Three in the UK will tell a different kind of aspirational story.”


Demand for proven brands is, however, just one facet of this broad category. Quizzed about emerging trends, Green says: “One post-Covid pattern that’s here to stay is craft-based shows. Lego Masters started this trend before the pandemic, but as people ponder their work-life balance, perhaps spending more time at home, there’s room for shows that people can learn from.”


Another trend that’s here to stay, says Green, is the ‘premium-isation’ of the genre – or at least part of it. “With the streamers investing in high-quality content, there’s no doubt factual entertainment has had to raise its game. Viewers expect a filmic experience every time they tune in, so all bets are off,” he says.


Green regards Banijay’s off-the-grid chase format Hunted as a case in point. “The format has been successful for a few years,” he says, “but these days we position it as a premium, high-stakes unscripted thriller. The use of celebrities and higher production values have seen it work on linear TV and streamers.”


Cecilie Olsen, ITV Studios’ senior VP of global unscripted content, can also point to a Teflon-coated fact ent format in the shape of Come Dine With Me. With 17,000 episodes produced, it has just travelled to HBO Max in Mexico, one of the 46 territories to have taken the show.


The Prince's Master Crafters
The Prince’s Master Crafters

Echoing Green, Olsen says ITV Studios has found a way to both refresh and premium-ise the format with Come Dine With Me: The Professionals.


Olsen also identifies several new developments in the fact ent space. Like Green, she points to craft-based shows like The Great Pottery Thrown Down, which, like Bake Off, comes from Love Productions. “These shows are like a warm hug, and I don’t think they are going anywhere soon,” she says. “We have a new title in this space, which is called The Prince’s Master Crafters. Produced for Sky Arts, the series sees a selection of top amateur craftspeople take on a variety of crafting challenges before each presenting a piece to The Prince of Wales in person.”


Escapism is another durable post-Covid theme, says Olsen. “Adventure formats like Alone speak to the audience’s desire to get outside. But there’s also an aspirational side to escapism, which is about luxury. Our real estate reality show for BBC Three, Dubai Hustle, is an example. But we also have Loaded In Paradise, a new format which sees young couples let loose with a credit card in Greece. They can spend what they want until they get caught by other contestants. Whoever finds them gets control of the card until they are also caught.”


Property Bros: Forever Home
Property Bros: Forever Home

An increasing trend towards hybrids and mash-ups is also emerging, says Olsen. As an example, she cites whodunnit cooking format Rat In The Kitchen, “where contestants are trying to prepare food with a saboteur in their midst.”


BBC Studios Nordics’ Salling also sees hybrids as a trend, as channels seek a point of differentiation. “This Is My House is a show that has the feel of a property show but is also a guessing game involving celebrities. DNA Journey, which aired on ITV in the UK, combines a kind of investigation element with science and family history,” he says.


While food and property continue to do well in the Nordics, Salling believes the market these days is also looking for edgy content, more akin to Married At First Sight. “The desire for authentic social experiments is still growing, shows that tackle tough subjects and where the end isn’t obvious.”


Richard Life, Cineflix Rights’ head of acquisitions, says long-running franchises like Property Brothers continue to do robust business. “Covid has meant enhanced demand for heart-warming shows. But buyers also want volume more than ever, because that allows them to build a repeatable franchise,” he says.


There is an argument that broadcasters around the world are moving more in the direction of local content, and that this is a downside for factual entertainment. But Life is not convinced: “Part of fact ent’s strength is that it is formatable. But if you have the right characters, even a presenter-led show will travel internationally in its original form,” he claims.


Our Big Family Farm
Our Big Family Farm

“We’ve had a lot of success in the UK with Channel 5’s Our Yorkshire Farm, which we market as Our Big Family Farm, and also with shows featuring celebrity chef Ainsley Harriet. We’ve got high hopes for Dream Home Makeovers with Sophie Robinson. She has a bright, endlessly optimistic, infectious personality that we’re certain will cross borders.”


Jon Rutherford, president of kids, family and rights at Boat Rocker Studios, makes a similar point with regard to Mary Berg, a charismatic celebrity chef whose shows are selling well beyond her native Canada. “We’ve seen a similar phenomenon with Motel Makeover, which launched on Netflix. If you find relatable personalities to present these shows it can resonate really well with global audiences,” he says. As a footnote, it’s worth saying that Berg came to fame on MasterChef Canada.


Back at Cineflix, Life agrees with Banijay’s Green that there is a drive towards premium in factual entertainment, “which explains the increasing emphasis on celebrities,” he suggests. “Amazon has had success with Clarkson’s Farm. One of our key titles right now is Richard Hammond’s Workshop, which benefits from Richard’s track record on shows like Top Gear and his reputation as a daredevil.”


Premium, of course, comes at a cost, which explains why more fact ent shows are reliant on multiple partners. Richard Hammond’s Workshop, for example is backed by Discovery+, Cineflix Rights and branded content firm Krempelwood.


Sarah Beeny's New Life In The Country
Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country

In Life’s view, the Hammond show, now entering season two, underlines another trend: getting to see celebrities putting themselves on the line. “You see Hammond taking real risks and you meet his family, so it’s a much richer emotional experience.” he says.


Another show that reinforced this trend during Covid was Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country, a Hat Trick International series where the TV personality swapped city life for a rural restoration project.


Nicky Davies Williams, CEO at DCD Rights, says: “The fact that there was less production with a travel element made completed shows more attractive to buyers and viewers alike. But it’s important to say that travel is perennially popular.”


In terms of fact ent titles doing well for DCD, Davies Williams picks out The Travelling Auctioneers, “a strong new series, delivering emotional, as well as transactional elements.”


Davies Williams also sees increased scope for fact ent series that operate in what used to be specialist factual terrain. “Bettany Hughes’ Treasures covers a range of historical sites and appeals to broadcasters worldwide,” she says. “Also in the history space are The Secrets of the London Underground and Secret Societies, which includes insights into powerful societies trying to remain behind closed doors.”


Evil By Design: Surviving Nygard
Evil By Design: Surviving Nygard

Premium factual entertainment is an attractive option for SVoD services and major factual channels, Davies Williams accepts, but she stresses that “long-running, high-volume workhorses are still a strong staple for any schedule.”


In a similar vein, she notes that DCD recently partnered with Runtime to launch a UK-based free ad-supported TV channel around the long-running Bridezillas franchise.


Solange Attwood, executive VP at Blue Ant International (BAI), says true crime continues to be one of fact ent’s strongest suits. “We’re seeing an overwhelming demand for new true crime content, and we don’t see demand waning anytime soon. We have premium, limited crime docs, such as Evil By Design: Surviving Nygard as well as long-running, franchise crime series such as See No Evil,” she reveals.


Attwood says exclusive access to people and places is increasingly a key aspect of factual entertainment – a point that perhaps plays into the idea of premium-isation. BAI is shopping Prince Charles’ Green Grand Design, in which B4 Films gets an exclusive, inside look at a secret project that Prince Charles has been working on: the restoration of Dumfries House, a rundown estate in one of the most deprived parts of the UK.


Julian Curtis, co-founder of Line Up Industries, says the short-term effects of Covid seem to be largely over. “However, there seems to be a longer-term impact in a continued lightening of tone, even when tackling difficult subjects,” he adds.


Prince Charles’ Green Grand Design
Prince Charles’ Green Grand Design

Line Up’s Taboo, which explores the boundaries of what is considered acceptable when it comes to humour, is an example of a show where the tone has shifted between series. “Similarly, Therapy in Belgium has changed between the first and second seasons to bring in a celebrity element which lightens the tone, while still tackling mental health in a thorough and educational manner.”


Another format, Long Lost Family, has touched a nerve at a time when people are still separated from their loved ones, says Curtis. “Tape sales have been made in new territories and older episodes score well for Quest in the UK. DR has brought the show back and we also have a Canadian series in development. The theme of family reunions remains strong with our format Family Dinner being optioned in a number of territories in the last few months,” he says.


Both Salling of BBC Studios Nordics’ and Curtis highlight the need for concepts that are immediately eye-catching in an on-demand world. “Shows have to be accessible and contain an extra hook,” says Curtis. “With Therapy in Belgium, having a celebrity element in the second season meant it could be marketed on VoD with the image of the celeb as the thumbnail.”


And, of course, an attention-grabbing title never hurts, as audiences look for their next factual entertainment fix.