TV Formats: Riskier Productions That Present Higher Rewards

Creating TV formats for the global market has all the elements of a winning strategy. Format producers share ideas on how to make it in the TV-as-a-franchise world.

Create once, sell many times. So goes the saying from the playbooks of entrepreneurs everywhere.

And the same wisdom applies to television producers who work with formats. Whether they involve singing, selling, cooking, shopping, renovating or any number of potentially competitive activities, television formats have galvanized an industry once centred around drama, comedy, documentary as well as news and information programming.

TV formats’ global expansion

What began as a small slice of the TV landscape has, since the early 2000s, turned into a multibillion-dollar annual market, with a reach that extends to hundreds of countries worldwide. And the origins of the biggest formats are not necessarily obvious.

Those bake-off, celebrity-dancing and millionaire-making quiz shows you’ve been watching? Many originated in the UK, but also elsewhere such as the Netherlands, Israel, South Korea and Argentina. All of them have become major players in the TV-as-a-franchise world.

Where does Canada fit into the picture? There have been a handful of success stories to date, such as the Mike Holmes’ branded shows Love It or List It and The Property Brothers. However, Robert Cohen, who produced formats such as Canada’s Smartest Person and Outlaw In-Laws, sees “a missed opportunity for Canada to be a mega-generator of format IP [intellectual property].”

K7 Media shares top traveling formats

  • Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? continues to hold the top spot as the most widely sold format.
  • Eight of the top 10 formats are more than a decade old.
  • 80% of the world’s most popular formats are distributed by as few as 10 companies, with Endemol Shine Group coming out on top with 22% of the formats featured, followed by FremantleMedia and Warner Bros.
  • The UK, the US and the Netherlands are the most prolific producers of formats that travel.
  • Game shows account for 36% of the top 100 formats, with the largest sub-group of these being quiz-based. The next most popular genre is reality television, accounting for 34% of the list. Talent shows represent 19% of those formats and cookery contests, at 9%, are catching up fast from behind.
  • There is an understandable concern over how the disruptive presence of Netflix and Amazon will impact the format market, but our analysis suggests that—from a production standpoint at least—the market for broadcast quiz shows, reality shows as well as cooking and talent contests remains high.

Attributes of exportable TV formats

When a group of format producers recently took to the stage at the Prime Time conference in Ottawa to discuss format production and acquisition, one of the main issues explored was what it takes to make exportable formats.

Cohen identified three key attributes—universality, adaptability and scalability—and broke them down as follows. Universality is about having a core appeal among a large group of people, adaptability is about how easily the concept can be adapted to local cultures, and scalability refers to the ability to accommodate the range of budgets made available in different parts of the world.

Smartest Person was a success in Canada first, and then moved to a Turkish broadcaster, with a much smaller budget,” revealed Cohen.

Funding and developing TV formats

Game shows constitute the top format, but for Canadian producers, they come with an additional challenge. They’re not eligible for the same funding sources and tax credit programs as other genres.

“International partners come to me to talk about Smartest Person and are surprised we were able to do it because of the funding constraints,” said Cohen.

Maria Armstrong, creator of one of Canada’s most successful formats Love It or List It, initially sold her show to the W Network in 2008. Ten years later, it’s licensed in 150 markets worldwide, with local versions gracing screens in Brazil, Spain, Norway, Bulgaria and beyond.

“True partnerships with broadcasters are needed,” pointed out Armstrong. “Development and production investment, a strong lead in, and a marketing commitment.”

UK production executive Duncan Gray, whose career spans creative roles on formats such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and on the broadcaster side commissioning shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, referenced a trick used by smaller countries that have helped them gain traction for formats in their home markets.

“In smaller countries like Holland, Israel and Norway, they leverage their own airtime […] and then they can say ‘We’ve got a 40% share!’”

Certainly, there are additional risks that come with the funding and development of homegrown TV formats. Everything needs to be built up from scratch: the intellectual property, the name recognition and the brand equity.

Bell Media’s Corrie Coe believes broadcasters and producers need to embrace these risks. “It if takes off, everybody wins,” said Coe.

The international take-off of CTV’s The Launch

One such example of developing a new format in house is the musical reality show The Launch, which premiered on CTV in January 2018 for an initial run of 6 episodes. Canadian musical hopefuls compete for the chance to work with top international songwriting, performing, and production talents, such as Alessia Cara, Shania Twain, Boy George and Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx.

In each episode, a single winner is selected to record an original song penned by a well-known tunesmith and, unlike the Idol shows, where viewers had to wait an entire season for the hit song to emerge, the song is released the night of the broadcast.

In addition to making the song available on digital platforms, CTV is able to leverage parent company Bell Media’s entertainment shows and radio properties to promote the song and program.


Sony Pictures Television was quick to acquire the international rights to The Launch and several local versions, including one in the UK, are on the way.

“It is a unique and authentic look into what it takes to be a successful performer and recording artist in today’s music business and we are confident that audiences around the world will embrace it,” explained Sarah Edwards, creative director of global formats for Sony Pictures Television.

Providing an international perspective on the prospects for Canadian formats in a global market, Duncan Gray chimed in with the following:

“In Canada, you’ve got the talent, the air time, and the resources. If you do more shows like The Launch, packaged with international talent and interesting tech angles, I think you’ll be on your way.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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