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Format Heavyweights Discuss Creativity, Social Media

The Format Superpanel: Formulas for Success was one of the most well-attended sessions at MIPCOM last week. Moderated by World Screen's group editorial director, Anna Carugati, the packed-out session featured FremantleMedia's Rob Clark, Shine's Alex Mahon, Banijay's François de Brugada, Endemol's Tom Toumazis and Embassy Row's Michael Davies discussing some of the key issues facing the format industry, including the quest for the next breakout hit and the role played by social media.

The Format Superpanel: Formulas for Success, organized by MIPCOM and World Screen, kicked off with a conversation about what broadcasters are asking for. Clark, president of worldwide entertainment at FremantleMedia, noted that broadcasters are seeing a bump in ad revenues following the downturn, which is starting to trickle into programming budgets. "Prime time is a big thing for us," he said. "The Asian market is very lively at the moment," he added. Demand for what he called "The Holy Trinity"—Idols, The X Factor and Got Talent—"has increased immensely. Got Talent we've almost doubled the sales in 16 months. It's a hit everywhere. They become tent-pegs in the schedule."

Mahon, president of the Shine Group, noted that broadcasters are on the lookout for "channel-defining" shows. "It needs to stand for their whole identity. It needs to be versatile for them, flexible, they need to be able to order more of it, they need to work in different configurations." Masterchef, she said, has sold into another 18 territories in the last year, "because it can work all throughout the schedule: in a strip, on a Saturday night, in prime time, as access prime."

Toumazis, chief commercial officer at Endemol, added, "Our sense is you don't just sell the format anymore. It's about putting a complete package together of content and IP that connects with your audience."

Davies, founder of Embassy Row, now part of Sony Pictures Television, pointed to the "massive swingback" in ad revenues in the U.S. "However, [with the] U.S. networks, there's been a massive slowdown in the buying of nonfiction formats and a huge resurgence in the scripted business." The fate of the 20-plus new dramas and comedies on the networks will determine how many opportunities are available for nonscripted shows to break into the market. He added there's been "an explosion in cable buying."

The conversation moved on to what makes for a good format. "The big hits have, on the whole, been very, very original," Davies noted, "and haven't been imitative. It's the shows that knock your socks off and scare people and are incredibly difficult to sell. The only thing that defines all those successful shows is how difficult they've been to sell to the initial broadcaster."

Mahon noted that an emerging trend is that viewers want to feel that shows are "not overproduced or overly manipulated." Mahon pointed to the "rage against the machine phenomenon to do with The X Factor."

FremantleMedia's Clark responded: "14 million watched The X Factor last night. So I don't think rage against the machine is to be taken that seriously."

He added, "A format is a really simple thing. It's a structure in which a story is told. You should have a fantastic way to start the series arc. It needs a great middle bit, great content, great reality that drives it, and then it needs a fantastic ending. That's all a format is."

Banijay's executive VP of commercial and creative affairs, François de Brugada, noted the difference between initiators and followers. "Among the initiators, where the biggest shows of the last few years have come from, it's the U.K., Holland, Scandinavia sometimes and the U.S. The rest of the world is looking for the successes."

He also pointed to the rising demand for formats from DTT channels. "They are looking for signature shows. They want big, bold shows. That's good news for producers."

Toumazis echoed Davies' point that "great shows are difficult to give birth to." He listed as an example The Money Drop. "There are a number of elements that you wouldn't normally associate with a traditional game show. Most game shows you accumulate prize money. In this one you take it away. There was a big debate within our company and Channel 4 whether that would garner the right reaction. That was a risk."

Next on the agenda was social media and the use of Facebook, Twitter and other applications. "The next giant format in the world is going to be something which does naturally tie together all of the social-media functions," said Davies.

FremantleMedia's Clark added: "It is inconceivable that you could launch a major format on a major network or even on a smaller network without having a full array of new-media applications available.... It is absolutely essential that your format lives beyond a broadcast time."

Banijay's de Brugada pointed to his company's Dilemma as a successful use of new media, with viewers able to go online and watch footage from 10 cameras filming the contestants. "Involvement is key," he said. "We are working on launching a platform that will allow people watching TV to play against the participant on the set of the game show. We are going to go further in the involvement of the audience."

Carugati then asked the panelists to discuss successful production models. Toumazis explained how Endemol is using production hubs for big shows like Wipeout. "When you're building bigger ideas, you face the challenge of how can you replicate a terrific concept in some smaller markets around the world."

Twenty three versions of Wipeout have been produced at the Buenos Aires hub, Toumazis said. Three different formats are now being produced at the Argentine base.

FremantleMedia's entertainment formats require a different approach, Clark noted, with a system of "*****s, flying producers, control of the IP centrally, and we pass on best practices and quickly stamp out things that don't work."

Embassy Row's Davies noted that nonfiction formats have become much more expensive in the U.S. "We often can't compete against FremantleMedia or Endemol. [Where] we can compete against [them] is, because we come from a strict game show background, strict talk-show background, we say, we're going to make low-cost, high volume, high quality. Lower cost alternative series are making a comeback."

Clark stressed the importance of protecting your brands. "The FremantleMedia catalogue goes back to the '50s. Price is Right is 55 years old. The important aspect is to make sure that a) it's not bastardized and b) it's kept relatively pure and fresh. These shows are not just shows. They're billion-dollar brands."

Shine's Mahon added, "You have to be careful what you do off air. Viewers will only trust so much brand extension."

Company size was the next topic of conversation. "It helps if you've got a number of production companies around the world who have got a specialization in one of the genres you're trying to extend," said Endemol's Toumazis, referencing the company's 80 production companies worldwide.

Davies, who sold his indie to Sony in 2009, noted, "There's been a lot of consolidation, there are less indies worldwide. More market share has gone to fewer companies. I do think the business is at a creative crossroads. What's going to be exciting is watching the next generation of true indies come up, with their new ways of working."

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