IT IS probably no exaggeration to say that, without the vision and determination of David Lyle, today’s $5bn-plus global formats industry would still be a smallish sideshow to the main event of television. And it would undoubtedly be a much more dangerous marketplace in which to operate.
It is for these reasons that Lyle — the man who played a pivotal role in the founding of FRAPA and who has pushed, pulled, cajoled and championed the industry since the Wild West days of formateering back in the mid-Nineties — is “the more than worthy recipient”, in the words of FRAPA chair Ute Biernat, of this year’s FRAPA/C21 Gold Medal Award for services to the international formats industry.
Lyle, whose television career spans 25 years, 20 countries and a top executive positions for the likes of Fox, FremantleMedia, Pearson and, now, National Geographic Channels, joins a stellar line-up of previous Gold Medallists, including Reg Grundy, Merve Griffin, Peter Bazalgette and Deal or No Deal creator Dick de Rijk.
Here, he talks to Joanna Stephens about the early days of FRAPA, the Reality Decade – and why format creatives should avoid blank pieces of paper.
The Gold Medal presentation took the form of a This Is Your Life-style ambush by your FRAPA colleagues. You were presenting a MIPTV keynote at the time. Did you really have no idea what was in store?
I was totally surprised. The FRAPA board had had a few discussions about potential Gold Medal recipients, but then it all went quiet and I was so deeply burrowed into Nat Geo at the time that I wasn’t paying attention. So I’m up on stage at MIPTV, banging on about making documentaries, when Michel Rodrigue [fellow FRAPA board member] started asking me a convoluted question from the floor. While I was looking at him trying to figure out what he was rambling on about — he seemed to be asking me about my wages — the FRAPA board shuffled on stage from the other direction. I was truly shocked. And, oddly enough for an old cynic, very touched.
Looking back, what would you say FRAPA’s role has been in shaping the formats industry as we know it today?
FRAPA was formed at the dawn of the format boom. I maintain — and it’s probably an idiosyncratic view — that Millionaire was the first real global primetime reality hit. It may technically have been a quiz, but you got to know the contestants as people, and there was an immediacy and interactivity about the way they got on the show that made for a much more personal connection.
So for me, it was Millionaire that started the whole reality explosion in the late Nineties. The success of those early reality hits — Survivor, Big Brother, Popstars — was astonishing. Unlike dramas, where perhaps one in 12 get to air and work, in the early days of the reality boom, maybe two out of every three formats that made it to air were working. So naturally, people were scrambling to get into the reality game.
At that point, it became clear that we needed some sort of framework for the formats business. We were also aware that people were ripping off formats left and right, so protection was becoming an imperative. The Hughie Green Clap-O-Meter case had given protecting IP under copyright law a pretty negative image, so a key part of FRAPA’s early mission was to lobby for recognition under law. In the early days, the ‘recognition’ part of FRAPA’s name was really vital. We realised that was the first step to proper legal protection.
In the second part of what I call ‘The Reality Decade’ — starting around 2006 — there was a period of massive consolidation. Companies started to be bought and sold for serious amounts of money because of their format expertise, which gave a real financial impetus to adequate format protection. People began to realise that this wasn’t about lonely artists in attics trying to protect their drawings from being photocopied, but a real business making real money from extremely valuable IP. That was a turning point.
I won’t say there’s not piracy around today, but it’s not rampant. However, there was a tipping point back in 2001-2002 when it could have gone badly wrong and degenerated into everybody stealing everybody’s formats all the time. That’s what FRAPA, by helping people to understand the mechanics of IP in formats, has helped to prevent.
What was your first brush with formats?
Like everybody else, I watched shows like What’s My Line and Wheel of Fortune without realising they were formats. I suppose my first real contact was in my latter days at Channel Nine Australia in the early Nineties. I remember being part of a heated discussion as to whether we should pay a format fee to Jimmy’s hospital in Leeds for a UK docu-soap that we wanted to replicate in a hospital in Sydney. I was just an observer at that point, but it got me thinking.
Shortly after, we did Peter Bazalgette’s Trading Spaces and I started to see that these shows — or formats — could really rate. Then, when we did Millionaire, there was a similar quiz format doing the rounds from Action Time called something like Million Dollar Chance of a Lifetime. That was the first time I started wondering how close is too close in terms of IP.
Actually, the first mediation I ever did was between Jimmy Mulville from Hat Trick and an Australian producer, who had launched a programme called Good News Week. Jimmy was huffing and puffing because it was an almost identical comedy panel format to Have I Got News For You? I knew both parties, so I brought everybody together and managed to calm things down.
Looking forward, where next for formats?
Let’s get over the notion that formats are a passing trend. They’ve become an integral part of the structure of the television industry. Dramas can still be tremendously successful but they’re expensive and, in today’s fragmented media market, they have to be surrounded by lower cost models.
So for every Downton Abbey, you need unscripted entertainment to balance the books. Some of those formats will be fiercely local, as happens a lot in the US. Others will be absolute formats that can be replicated successfully hither and yon. And still others will be hybrids like Jersey Shore, which has now been sold worldwide as a franchise. I believe we’re about to see a growth in such franchises, if only because of the advertising potential. One of the most delightful parts of signing on to a franchise is that you can go to your advertisers — who are mostly very naïve about unscripted entertainment — show them the ratings from Jersey Shore US and say: “We’re making that in Italy.” And the advertisers instantly get it.
Another growth area will be in the digital space — second screen, social television and apps based on shows. I think these technologies will cause the format industry to growth almost horizontally across the different platforms.
But if I’ve learned one lesson, it’s that there are no rules. For example, just when you think we can’t possibly have another singing show, along comes The Voice and proves everybody wrong.
Lastly, what advice would you give to the next generation of format creatives?
Write it down. Start with something you know and then ask yourself how it could be done differently. If you sit there with a blank piece of paper and try to dream up something that’s never been seen before and is totally revolutionary, you’ll be sitting there looking at that paper for a long time. Instead, think how you could make a dating or talent show and make it different.
Next, don’t edit yourself straight away. Come up with lots of different variations, however unlikely. The difference between a sparky idea and a format is develop, develop, develop.
The next step is to put in structure, which not only helps the show but also helps prove ownership. The Voice, for example, is much more than a singing competition with chairs that swing round. That’s a nice motif but there’s a lot of other stuff in there — so get as much detail down as possible.
And lastly, if you can write it on a beer coaster, it’s probably a concept, not a format.