Today’s factual TV is all about formats: repeatable, exportable templates that can generate multiple episodes in a multitude of markets. Thanks to excellent collections of case studies like Tasha Oren and Sharon Sharaf’s Global Television Formats, we can now understand the dynamics of adaptation from market to market. But what makes a successful format in the first place? Two visitors to the MA International Broadcasting course which I lead at Royal Holloway in the past week have provided some useful answers. Both demonstrated just how difficult it is to achieve simplicity in TV: the obvious is anything but obvious during the development process. Formats that now seem obvious are in fact the result of a painstaking process of experiment and elaboration, along with plenty of accident and dumb luck. As Alex Graham of Wall to Wall put it, “you don’t end up making the programme you think you are making”.

Format simplicity is not the same as clarity in a programme idea. A simple format will normally involve a production ‘trick’, often stumbled on during the making of the first series. Clarity in programme ideas is different, a matter of knowing what the key feature of your programme actually is. This clarity is necessary for the pitching process, explained James Quinn of Oxford Film and Television. Clarity can mean that an idea can even be summarised in its title alone: The Princess and the P45 indicates both subject (Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie having to earn their own living) and the attitude of the show (at least in the UK where a P45 is what you get when you are fired, as another successful format puts it… and where we know the children’s fable of the Princess and the Pea).

However, many successful formats have not had such clarity on their initial inception. Initially, Big Brother was impossible to explain to anyone who had never seen it. Now it seems dead obvious: ‘why didn’t it occur to me?’ we wonder. But try thinking out the initial pitch: ‘a group of random individuals shut in a house with no information about what’s going on outside…’ ‘hang on, that sounds like torture…’ ‘no it’s a gameshow…’ ‘so where’s the entertainment?’ ‘well we just watch them 24 hours a day…’ ‘Next idea please’.

The secret of format repeatability lies not so much in the what as the how. The basic premise of Big Brother may seem obvious, but the obviousness belies the difficulties of keeping it going, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, series after series, territory after territory. The format has had constantly to introduce tricks and surprises to keep ahead of participants who think they can beat the format and viewers who think they have seen it all before.

These tricks are what make the format sale deal worthwhile. Broadcasters who try to save by ripping off a format unacknowledged often fail: commercial operators in China have already learned this lesson. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past, and so it is with formats. It’s much better to get the nice people from the originating production team to share their knowhow. The UK generates a billion pounds of exports a year this way, selling reality to USA, and the biggest new hit this year in the Czech republic: Who Do You Think You Are?.

Who Do You Think You Are?

So what, according to Alex Graham, is the secret of this format, which has generated 318 programmes worldwide, including 100 in the UK? First, it was not the programme that they set out to make. Wall to Wall was commissioned in 2003 to make a single series of history shows which used the vehicle of celebrity to reveal major events in British history: one period or issue per celebrity. So far so BBC2. Bill Oddie was meant to ‘do’ the industrial revolution. Instead it emerged that the real story was that of his mother, unaccountably absent for much of his childhood, in fact incarcerated in an asylum for the insane. Graham realised then that the format had inverted itself: the vehicle intended to carry Big History had become the main event. For eventual viewers like me, this realisation came when newsreader Moira Stuart began to cry looking for her forebears in the ledgers of slave owners, realising the intimacy and enormity of slavery and asking, very gently, for the filming to stop.

Who do you think you are

This might produce a few good shows and maybe an award two. But how does it become a successful format? That’s where the tricks of production come in. The first is dedicated research. These are not cheap programmes, needing a minimum of three months research each, and with an average rejection rate of 50% of celebrities who simply have (like most of us) no-one interesting in their forebears, or at least no-one interesting who left archival traces which is rather different. The budgets involved prove that format TV is not necessarily cost-cutting TV. The main trick, however, is surprise. Like many other successful reality series, Who Do You Think You Are? depends on ‘the reveal’. The celebrity is kept in the dark about what has been discovered about their forebears. The ten day shoot is a genuine journey of discovery for them; sometimes this is also the case for the archivists involved as well, but most being good researchers probably have a hunch about who they are about to meet. Without the reveal, the series would not work. Even though some of the reactions may seem banal, they are clearly unscripted and this adds to the ‘behind the scenes of celebrity’ feel that is part of the series’ appeal.

The Who Do You Think You Are? format shrewdly combines celebrity and history, throwing the emphasis firmly on history but using one of the standard tropes of celebrity: glimpses of the ‘real’ person behind the mask. But no-one set out to make such a show, and indeed anyone setting out to engineer this combination would probably have failed. The nature of the necessary ‘reveal’ revealed itself during the production of the first series. The series also hit the right moment, when personal engagement with history was emerging as a new leisure pursuit, the moment when the National Trust realised that the ‘below stairs’ of its stately homes was more of a draw than the state rooms; the moment when ‘everyday life’ (and with it television studies) became a respectable academic category. Who Do You Think You Are? was a significant player in this movement, with its lucrative spinoffs and tie-ins engineering a change in how people engage with archives up and down the land. It is also an example, if such were needed, of how format television is not incompatible with public service broadcasting.


JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London.  He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen.  His publications can be found HERE.