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The secrets to cracking the TV format game

Arts & Culture

South Australians who think they have the vision to create a hit entertainment TV format – in the vein of anything from Lego Masters to The Voice – are being offered a rare chance to learn how such ideas are transformed into TV gold.

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TV formats, all based on challenge and combat, rule cable and broadcast television.

They can include game, chat, talent, lifestyle, dating and panel shows – everything from The Voice, to MasterChef to Millionaire Hot Seat – and the networks are always hungry for a fresh new take on an existing format.

But getting a format up on Australian television is a daunting challenge. The shows look like a fountain of money, but they are incredibly hard to design. These days, the major companies have thousands of formats defended by lawyers, while broadcasters much prefer to work off a known bible rather than take a punt on something new.

The production process is rigorous, precise and exhausting. The successful game show producer is a psychologist, a logician, a spreadsheet junkie and an adrenalin addict.

For one day only, however, the secret door will be opened to reveal how TV formats are invented.

As part of the 2019 Screen Makers Conference this weekend, Adelaide’s Media Resource Centre is running a Screen Makers Lab described as: “Your chance to get in front of some of the biggest names in television and learn the golden rules to putting a TV format together and transform your idea into TV format gold.”

Why would key people from unscripted TV spill the beans to an audience of relative neophytes, more than half of whom are actors used to the very different rough and tumble of the Adelaide Fringe?

“I can tell you they [the industry participants] have all said to me they are starved for behind-the-scene talent – young upcoming producers, writers, directors they can employ on the shows – because they just don’t have enough staff,” says the Lab organiser Karena Slaninka.

“They are all recruiting.”

She says the Lab is casting a wide net: “Anyone can come who wants to get the lowdown and the inside running straight from the horse’s mouth about how to put a show together and make contacts with networks.”

In addition, Screen Makers Lab participants from South Australia can also submit a pitch for the Out of the Box funding initiative and receive mentoring by the panellists through the concept’s initial development. One team will receive $15,000 in cash and $15,000 in kind from the ABC to cover studio hire, equipment and insurance to create a pilot for a studio-based entertainment show. The pilot will be broadcast on local community TV station Channel 44.

The Out of the Box Initiative is described as a search for “bold, innovative concepts that seek to fill a gap in the current market”.

Expressions of interest will be received after August 2, so local participants can build their ideas after attending the workshop.

Panelist Caroline Spencer, director of development for Fremantle Media, says she will be happy if participants come even with something that triggers an idea that can be built upon.

“I call it innovation stacking. We need some basic information and three or four things on top, like an interesting host, an interesting twist or a different world.”

She argues that the market is in a state of flux. One example that combines the changing trends and the power of reinvention is The Masked Singer, evolved by Fox from a South Korean show called King of Masked Singer.

The format sees celebrities sing in masks while the rest of us, including the judges, have to guess who they are. Easy peasy. It has gone gangbusters for Fox in the US and is about to start here on Ten.

“That is an interesting example which shows the room for different types of thinking,” Spencer says.

“On a gentler level is Lego Masters on Nine. Five years ago that was a really difficult pitch, but the beauty of the show lies in its nuance.

“It is a very interesting, complex reality show. It helps that Nine got Hamish Blake, who is a complete Lego nerd.

“For me, it very gently takes the piss out of the genre. That is where we seem to be at the moment, with a traditional and formal structure but something else layered over the top we haven’t seen before.”

Broadcaster representative at the Lab will include Adrian Swift (Nine), Julie Hanna (ABC Factual), Sarah Thornton (Ten), Susie Jones (SBS) and Lauren Hillman (Channel 44). Production companies have their space through Nick Murray (CJZ) and Todd Abbott (Guesswork TV).

Presiding over the selection and development process is Marion (Maz) Farrelly, a legend in reality TV. Starting as a journalist, she was producing by 2000, and the list she owns up to includes The X Factor, The Celebrity Apprentice, Q&A, Big Brother AU, Big Brother UK, The Farmer Wants a Wife, and Dancing with the Stars. While Farrelly is involved in most of the panels over the day, she is running a two-hour session by herself called The Secrets to Success.

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub. This is an edited version of an article first published on that website and republished here with his permission.

The Screen Makers Lab and Out of the Box Initiative will be held on July 28 at the Mercury Cinema, with more details available here.

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