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Ideas that scale: how to create a global TV format

The art of branded content cover

Imagine a single advertising campaign, so powerful that it lasted for over a decade, worked in more than 50 countries, was successful across TV, digital and social media and won multiple awards.

And now imagine that the brand did not need to pay for the campaign because broadcasters around the world funded every cent of it. And the more the campaign travelled, the more money it recouped, making it a highly profitable business.

Do I sound like a raving lunatic? This is the business of international television production, where scalability of content is key. The strongest TV formats are created with the potential to travel across seasons, territories and platforms. Each format becomes a brand in its own right. It may evolve and adapt to the nuances of the local market, but it has the same identifiable structure and values at its core.

These TV formats are conceived with great care, designed to have a long lifespan and international appeal. They are nurtured to keep them evergreen. They attract huge, highly engaged audiences who actively choose to spend time with them. They maximize an initial investment to become profit centres. This is because their lifeblood is their Intellectual Property, or IP.

Wouldn’t it make creative and economic sense to see global brands such as McDonalds or Nike create their own branded entertainment in the form of long-running international hits? To evolve “I’m Lovin’ It” into a family entertainment format, to turn “Just Do it” into a global competitive reality show? After all, Redbull took “It Gives you Wings” to create the world’s biggest branded content powerhouse. They embraced and grew their IP.

Love Your IP

According to WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), “Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. IP is protected in law by, for example, patents, copyrights and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.”

I believe that Branded Entertainment has the potential to own IP and become a self-financing way to reach the hearts and minds of audiences who choose to spend time with content, regardless of whether or not it has been funded by a brand. The collaboration between TV production companies and the advertising industry can lead to a new Branded Entertainment model. With the growth of OTT platforms, the terms “TV”, “digital” and “branded” are now beginning to merge, and the only true requisite is that people want to be entertained.

IP is the core business principle of the world’s biggest production companies. Billions of people around the world will have seen local versions of the world’s most popular shows. In the non-scripted business, Sony Pictures’ Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has travelled to more than 115 territories. Endemol Shine have Deal Or No Deal in 88 countries, The Money Drop in 58 countries and Big Brother in 55 countries. Talpa’s The Voice is in 59 countries . All of these shows continue to grow and travel to new territories.

Having worked both sides of the business - in TV and advertising - I am aware of the different values that both entities revere. In advertising, annual campaigns mean that the pressure is on to refresh and renew. Sometimes the greatest creative ideas are adapted, convoluted and even obliterated to make way for the next big, shiny idea - and the only thing left is a copy line, which has its own sell-by-date. Original and groundbreaking work is awarded, but little credence is given to the lasting power of a returnable message. Plus the constrictions of a 30 second spot don’t usually allow the flexibility for local nuance and language.

But I still raise the challenge to agencies and brands to join hands with IP creators and nurture a new, long-term way of doing business.

TV is Big Business

I work for FremantleMedia. We’re one of the world’s biggest production companies. We’ve got offices in 31 countries and we produce and distribute 20,000 hours of content every year. We pride ourselves on creating irresistible entertainment and have many famous TV formats that travel the world – The X-Factor (a Fremantle/ Syco show in 55 countries) and Idols ( a Fremantle/ Core show in over 50 territories), Family Feud (71 territories) and Price is Right (42 territories), to name a handful.

The jewel in our IP crown is Got Talent, which was created by Simon Cowell and we co-own with Syco Entertainment. It has been produced locally in 70 countries and sold as a tape (the anachronistic term for finished programme) to over 200. Over 11 years it has attracted more than 43 billion views on YouTube and is consistently the #1 show for broadcasters in wildly diverse territories, from the USA to Spain, from Norway to Mongolia. It is the Guinness record holder for “the most successful reality entertainment format in the world”.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy to create a global mega-brand that crosses borders and cultures and languages. It takes time – and a lot of creative and strategic work - and it involves collaborating with our partner Syco and best development producers from all over the world to make sure that the show is relevant to different cultures and countries.

Got Talent is a great case study for traveling IP and there are so many lessons that the advertising world could learn to apply to Branded Entertainment.

In 2016 FremantleMedia was invited by Cannes Lions to present a panel on the Inspiration Stage about creating Global IP via Got Talent. FremantleMedia’s Director of Global Entertainment, Rob Clark, explained the journey of Got Talent from concept to Megabrand. He stressed the importance of the four pillars of a successful format: “Firstly it should be scalable and work on a huge budget, such in the US, but also as a small budget for emerging markets. It should be returnable - The Price is Right has been on-air continuously since 1956. It should be transferable, with no cultural barriers. And finally, it should be promotable; you should switch on a TV anywhere in the world recognise the look and feel of a strong TV format.”

The obvious starting point is being able to identify a successful piece of IP. The TV pilot in the UK didn’t even go to commission. Despite this, we remained confident in the concept, largely because our network of producers around the world loved it and were adamant that it would work. It was this surge of internal confidence that kept us going.

We took the show to NBC who commissioned a pilot. The host in the US was originally Regis Philbin, then a famous day-time celebrity, and the show started to look more like a global format… but it still wasn’t quite there.

We continued to share the concept with our creative network around the world – it was commissioned in France, Portugal, Russia, Australia, Belgium and Greece, evolving as it went.

The real shaping of the format came via the first series of Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. The Head Creatives at Syco and Fremantle always believed this show had themes that worked on a global level – variety, humour, family, dreams coming true, competition, talent.

We knew what worked in the production, for instance the presenters remaining backstage, and we better understood which elements of the show could be localised for audiences.

Go Global, Feel Local

An important element also became clear: the show reflects the cultural makeup of a nation and although it is global, it must appear regional. Here’s a quick test to see if a piece of content can become a global mega-brand: is it transferable (easy to adapt), is it returnable (recover the investment), and is it scalable (reaching as many territories as possible)? This is a really simple way to look at the potential of Branded Entertainment at the very start.

The Got Talent format became what it is today when, in series 3, a lady called Susan Boyle walked onto the stage. Her performance of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables became one of the most popular TV clips on YouTube of all time. To date it has had an estimated 380 million views. If you’ve never seen it, you should seek it out - it sends shivers down my spine every time I watch it.

Those few minutes of content with Ms Boyle encapsulated everything about the show that has made it a success: dreams coming true, outstanding talent, entertainment for the whole family… and it also captured expectation, surprise, redemption; a moving voice, a humbled Simon Cowell, a win for the loser. And it catapulted the format onto the global stage.

On a practical level, as more and more broadcasters started to commission the format, we needed to protect it and become strong brand guardians, in the same way that consumer brands look after their own equity.

We developed brand bibles and deployed flying producers around the world to make sure that the format was being produced properly. From the number of judges to the positioning of the presenter, we worked alongside Syco to oversee integrations with advertisers, insisting that our central marketing and creative teams managed approvals on all logos, idents, products and merchandise. Once we were confident about the core elements that needed to remain, we could allow our local teams to make the show relevant on a regional basis.

So we identified a hit, looked after the format globally; the next question was how do we keep it fresh? We had to be nimble enough to keep the brand innovative, but clever enough to know what worked. Simon Cowell has always been a key driving influence in how the show reinvents itself and one of the most successful changes we made to Got Talent was the introduction of the Golden Buzzer, which allowed judges to catapult their favourite acts into the finals. It wasn’t rocket science, but it added a different dimension and created a bigger moment in the studio with the audience yelling, “Push the button! Push the button!”

Got Talent also provides an amazing partnership platform for advertisers who want to reach a highly engaged audience. The show attracts brands from every sector - from food and beverages to cars, from tech to finance. It’s a big part of Fremantle and Syco’s business. Every year we do more than 150 brand integrations on Got Talent all over the world – from the branded cup on the judges’ desks to Facebook Live streams to licensing and events.

Tipping the Scales

More and more brands and agencies are beginning to see the financial potential of branded content. Unilever founded U Entertainment, BBH has Blacksheep Studios and Dentsu has grown Storylab. They are investing in scalable projects in which they own part of the IP, so when the show travels, they make a profit. Meanwhile, TV production companies are starting to see the benefit of working closely with agencies and are becoming increasingly willing to share their IP. The synergies between the two industries are growing.

There are still a number of obstacles in creating lasting IP and many of them are inherent in the structure of the advertising business. Budgets may be released on an annual rather than longer-term basis. Autonomous local business units mean that global strategies are difficult to implement. And it’s always much less risky to pay for that cup on the desk in an existing format such as American Idol than to create your own new talent show. It can be precarious, you might not get it right first time, and you’d be mistaken to think that a healthy ROI is automatically guaranteed.

Partnerships can be precarious without trust. TV production companies, brands and agencies all differ in their culture and business structures. So it’s important that each party does what they do best and sticks to it: agencies and brands, we love your vision, your creativity and your commercial drive, we really enjoy collaborating with new partners in refreshing ways… but please trust us TV types to get on with what we know best - making long-form content for devoted audiences and selling it to broadcasters around the world.

There are limitations around the scalability in scripted content. It’s highly possible to deliver drama and comedy season after season (The Simpsons, Law & Order, Dallas), but this does not usually involve producing multiple versions of the show in the US, Asian or European countries. Instead, it comes from the number of tape sales (the same version, redubbed or subtitled in local languages) to different territories.

Now it’s time for the industry to move into factual and entertainment. I can’t wait to see the next Big Brother, The Voice or Price is Right co-owned by a brand. To date, there hasn’t been a global Branded Entertainment reality series, game show or shiny-floor programme.

Even if there were any, I doubt that we’d ever see this genre of content winning at Cannes. As with the evolution of Got Talent, this type of IP takes years to grow and is unlikely to swoop an award at its first appearance. The best we can do is keep on experimenting, innovating, collaborating… and that kernel of a creative idea may turn into a global mega hit.

Sam Glynne is the global vice president of branded entertainment at FremantleMedia

There's more to be found from this chapter and the other 14 chapters from the co-authors of The Art of Branded Entertainment.

Meanwhile, The Drum Content Awards are now open for entry.