Former Fox and Discovery exec Simon Andreae believes there is still a next big thing in formats waiting to be uncovered and weighs up the pros and cons of mass consolidation in production.
Simon Andreae has touched all the bases in a 25-year career, with stints in independent production in the UK and US as well as commissioning jobs at UK terrestrial Channel 4 and at cablenet Discovery and broadcast network Fox in the US.
Andreae created runaway success Naked & Afraid during his three years at Discovery, which helped him land the executive VP of alternative entertainment role at Fox. However, he left that job in March 2015 after 18 months following the cancellation of John De Mol’s big-budget, headline-grabbing series Utopia’s.
The failure of Utopia, a format that had first aired in the Netherlands and came from the successful Talpa Media stable, has led to the suggestion that the formats industry is wasting its time trying to find the next big thing, but it’s not a theory Andreae shares.
The exec, who has since launched London-based indie Naked Entertainment with backing from FremantleMedia, says: “There will certainly be lots of successful moderately sized things but I don’t think that precludes there being more big hits. Idol reinvented competition shows and was soon followed by a bunch of others. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? came along and started big-money gameshows in primetime. Something else will happen.
“We talk about watching on any device at any time but at the same time the number of 50in TVs being sold is increasing in every market every year. That means spectacle becomes important. Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are successful in part because their production values are close to those of movies.
As well as spectacle and high production values, Andreae says the next big thing will have to include three key ingredients to cut through the noise. “At Fox I talked about the ‘triangle of titillation’: simple, original and extreme. The middle of that triangle is a place to dig for big hits,” he says.
Andreae also talks about “TV that changes TV.” While head of science and education at UK terrestrial Channel 4, he oversaw programmes including Autopsy: Life and Death where real cadavers were cut up on screen. Naked & Afraid, meanwhile, took the survivalist genre away from well-known hosts, meaning far more episodes could be produced each year.
“My boss at the time said you can’t have ‘naked’ on basic cable and you can’t imply Discovery heroes are ‘afraid’ of anything, so the only word that works in your title is ‘and,'” Andreae says. “But it’s becoming like The Simpsons – whenever you see a flash of that yellow in the corner of your eye you know it’s The Simpsons. Nudity can be the yellow of basic cable.”
Utopia fell out of the extreme and original sides of the triangle, in Andreae’s opinion. Fox canned the US$50m project, which sent people off into the ‘wilderness’ to start a new society over the course of a year, after two months of low ratings.
“At the time I was developing a show where 50 people step out of a helicopter into long grass, immediately have to give over all of their devices and clothes and then stand there while their possessions are burned in front of them. Then they walk away from the camera into the jungle to start a new society. The early debates would be about whether they would wear clothes or not, whether the clothes would be gender-specific or based on hierarchy, or both, or neither,” Andreae says.
“At the same time, Utopia hit in Holland. It was a good title, it had a great creative behind it in John De Mol, it had used Holland as a nursery slope. So I thought, ‘Let’s shift our thinking into that,’ partly because I thought maybe he’d cracked it and partly because if we didn’t somebody else would and then there would be no point continuing to develop my own idea anyway.
“With the wisdom of hindsight there were a few simple things I’d love to go back and change. It was on TV a lot, asking the audience to commit to two, possibly three shows a week for a year. Also, honestly, we didn’t make it original or extreme enough. People were dressed in camping gear, living 20 miles from LA and if they wanted to, which they often did, they could order in pizza.”
Andreae believes there is still room for a show like it, and is eagerly awaiting Channel 4’s forthcoming project Eden. He also believes there’s success to be had from widening the scope of survival series away from just the beach or jungle, perhaps into an urban setting.
But given the boom in drama and Utopia’s failure on Fox, is it realistic to expect US broadcast TV to again entrust so much of a budget to an unscripted format? Andreae admits it’s unlikely.
“The ‘go big or go home’ mantra is always going to be more true of the broadcast networks than cable,” he says. “Playing alongside big, high-concept dramas like Empire or 24, you need to get your shows noticed. There’s no nursery slope. Where are you going to put a pilot and anticipate people might watch it? It might play between New Girl and Empire, so it better be loud and high-concept and it better be advertiser-friendly. In cable, you can dip your toe a bit more. In broadcast, you’re in at the deep end or dead at the shallow end.
“It’s very difficult to get a network show for less than US$1m an hour and it won’t go on air unless you’re putting money behind marketing as well. It’s a very brave network president who will allow big risks in unscripted. The people running the networks would rather risk their reputation on a big drama or a star vehicle comedy and I understand why.”
Another perceived threat to the creation of big, game-changing unscripted formats is the mass consolidation of the production industry. As companies are slammed together, creative executives leave, overheads grow and paperwork increases, is the creative process inhibited? Andreae doesn’t believe it necessarily is.
“There’s nothing de facto that says you will be less creative in a consolidated company as opposed to a non-consolidated company, but I do think it’s more difficult for the consolidated companies that can’t offer equity to attract the best talent,” he says.
“The process of consolidation can be a distraction but the main problem is you quite often lose the key creative people from the company you bought once their three-year tie-in agreements are up. Then you’re left with second-tier management, or you have to hire new people, and if you’re a smart creative in this market you would want to be an owner. If you go and work for a company that’s already been sold and there’s no equity for you to own then there’s no incentive unless they make an unbelievable offer.”
Andreae started Naked Entertainment with backing from FremantleMedia and already has six of his 10 ideas pitched so far picked up either as a pilot or a series in the UK and/or US. He believes this sponsored start-up method is better for both sides, and for the creative process, than big-money mergers and acquisitions.
“These sponsored start-ups are a good way of doing it because, from an investor’s point of view, they’re not overpaying for a mature company and waiting three years before the creatives leave,” he says.
“I wanted to create a UK indie that qualified under the terms of trade to create and produce high-impact, returnable factual entertainment formats for the UK and US. Partnering with Fremantle meant we were still a qualifying indie, and if we make a hit they have 23 prodcos in territories around the world. If you have a hit format in this business everybody has eyes on it immediately and if you don’t exploit it overseas yourself quickly, somebody else will do it for you – or rather against you.
“Some of my friends with small indies always come up with their best ideas when their backs are against the wall – I don’t. I want to know there’s room to fail because out of that comes the will to go higher and higher on the tightrope, which is good for creativity. The sponsored start-up model provides that.”