Television contest shows: Looking for the next generation of TV hits

Once our favourite TV format – think the weekly vote-off of 'Strictly', 'X-Factor' and 'The Apprentice'– contest shows are failing to win over young viewers, and television bosses are holding crisis talks. Peter Bazalgette tells Ian Burrell why they need to think outside the box

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The Independent Online

As broadcasting bosses gather today for The Royal Television Society's annual Cambridge Convention, so do the storm clouds. The TV VIPs are facing what is being described as a "creative crisis".

A lack of originality in non-scripted formats is draining the supply of hit shows and undermining the peak-time schedules on which traditional broadcasters depend.

After a boom period at the start of the millennium, when British producers apparently could do no wrong and came up with a succession of winning formats that crossed the world, the sector is desperate for a new big idea.

"In the past 10 years there have been fewer blockbuster hits than in the previous 10 years," says Sir Peter Bazalgette, the society's president and a non-executive director of ITV. After relying heavily on The X Factor for Saturday night ratings since 2004, ITV is in urgent need of a replacement. The show is in its 12th series and, despite a shake-up, the audience has fallen to 7 million, the lowest level since 2006. Britain's Got Talent, the other staple of ITV's weekend schedule since 2007, has seen a steady decline in ratings and recent series criticised as "predictable".

Other British broadcasters are having similar difficulties. Strictly Come Dancing is holding up well but dates to 2004, while The Apprentice arrived a year later. According to Bazalgette, who brought Big Brother to Channel 4, the central problem is that an entire generation of shows were based on a central principle, which he terms the "Balloon Debate Mechanism", because they rely on one person after another being jettisoned, as if from a falling air balloon. The format dates back to the late-Nineties castaway series, Survivor.

"It's the idea of knocking one person out a week by a vote. Whether you are talking about [The Great British] Bake Off or The Apprentice or X Factor and [Britain's]Got Talent, it's all that one idea," he says. "That's what gets people rooting for the different characters and gives you a big narrative arc with a winner after 13 weeks. That has dominated world television entertainment since the mid- to late-90s and created billions of value."

Bazalgette remains hopeful that "somebody else is going to come up with some other simple mechanism at some point in the next few years" and that this light bulb moment will produce "a rash of lookalike formats".

But there are reasons for doubting such a cyclical pattern still exists in the medium of television. The global TV industry meets next month at Cannes for the Mipcom festival, where content is traded and network heads scout desperately for new hits. The talk of creative crisis in unscripted formats will again be heard, as it was last year when sighs of exasperation greeted announcements of more knockout-based shows featuring celebrities in sporting challenges.

Ed Waller, editorial director of the global TV trade publication C21, says many entertainment shows no longer even feel non-scripted. "The devices and techniques have become a victim of their own success – everyone expects them and no one is surprised," he says. "Everyone knows their roles, even the contestants, and the authenticity has been lost to over-exposure."

Writers are cautious about releasing potentially career-defining ideas when the British production sector is undergoing a period of consolidation and companies are being bought and merged. Better to keep that killer pitch in your bottom drawer for when you launch your own outfit. Taking a risk on new ideas is also expensive. "The bean counters would rather exploit the back catalogue of companies they have bought than spend it on new ideas," says Waller.

So the hiatus in development continues. Channel heads look on nervously at the fate of big new entertainment ideas such as Utopia, the latest offering from Big Brother creator John De Mol, in which a group of strangers try to create an ideal civilisation over the course of a year, which was rejected by American audiences and panned by critics.

Non-scripted entertainment shows are also out of fashion. Producers have followed the money and turned their attentions to drama, the genre which obsesses networks as they try to cater to the changing habits of audiences who have become accustomed to binge -watching shows such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Scandal. A staggering 400 new scripted dramas will be launched next season across the American market, increased from 280 five years ago.

But many of the best young creative minds have no interest in working for television anymore. YouTube will next month unveil some of its newest creative stars at its Brandcast event in London, which has become one of the hottest tickets in the media calendar.

With followings in the tens of millions, many Youtubers see no value in surrendering control of their content and losing interaction with their audience in exchange for a salary. Some won't even meet TV executives, much less hand over their ideas. In those circumstances, finding the next generation of TV hits is not going to be easy. 

Ones to watch – where the execs are looking for inspiration

The Jinx

An HBO docu-series, it's at the forefront of the new popularity of the true-crime genre, which first emerged with the cult podcast Serial. The Jinx is focused on real estate heir Robert Durst, suspected of involvement in the unsolved 1982 disappearance of his wife. Durst appears as himself.

Grandpas Over Flowers

A South Korean format in which four male septuagenarians go on backpacking trips to foreign destinations. Already a hit in China and being developed by NBC for the American market.

Smosh: The Movie

Made by YouTube comedians Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, it's a feature-length film that by-passed Hollywood and the TV networks to go straight to No 1 comedy movie on Apple's iTunes.

1001 Rooms – Beat The Matrix

Winner of the International Pitch Competition at the 2015 MipFormats TV festival, it is under development by UK indie All3Media. An Austrian game show idea in which contestants must escape from a matrix made up of 1,001 separate rooms, picking up rewards along the way. Sounds a bit like Anneka Rice's Treasure Hunt from the 1980s.

God's House

A Canadian idea, also hotly tipped at MipFormats, where eight people of different faiths are put together in one house, under the strapline "Conflict or co-exist?" Intended to give an insight into future global relations, it's basically a religious Big Brother.