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  • Simon Lythgoe

Transforming Formats from Regular TV to Streamers

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Over 25 years I’ve produced non-scripted TV on three continents, from big budget global successes like American Idol to cable pilots you’ve never heard of. There’s always a learning curve.

Compared to producing techniques and budgets in the UK and Australia, working in the United States is unique. Idol going from SD to the first ever high-definition broadcast on FOX was very difficult.

But none of this prepared me for the transformation of Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings.

The original series was broadcast on Disney’s cable channel, Freeform. It was a simple format we created, basically surprising couples and giving them their ultimate dream wedding. If a bride was a huge fan of Grease, unbeknownst to her we arranged Olivia Newton-John to sing live as the bride walked down the aisle. If they thought they were getting married in a hotel conference room, we gave them Disneyland. We shot in the Disney parks, cruise ships, resorts from Hawaii to Paris, from Alaska to the Bahamas. It was the most beautiful feelgood shows the whole family could enjoy and I’m very proud of the series and the team that made it. Freeform gave us a healthy cable budget and their content clock for one commercial hour was roughly 38 minutes.

The series success guaranteed that Disney’s new flagship streaming service, Disney+, picked up Season 2, which would become the first formatted show to stream on the platform. During production, D+ was so new we didn’t actually have network executives as it wasn’t fully operational. We were informed that the streaming hour would actually be 60 minutes of content, consequently we budgeted and shot an additional 20 minutes per episode to compensate the difference with Freeform’s content clock.

However, the additional time didn’t make it a stronger episode, and right before we delivered the series everything changed. The new Network Executives removed the clock and gave us creative freedom to produce the strongest episode possible with the content clock anywhere between 25-38 minutes. That freedom had never happened in my career and meant restructuring each episode, chopping them in half with a lot of content hitting the cutting room floor.

Rather than the typical series story arc of starting with the strongest episode, putting the average episodes in the middle and finishing the series with a big finale, D+ requested we re-order the entire series. By front-loading the strongest episodes at the beginning, viewers tend to binge-watch the entire series. In retrospect, this all sounds easy to do as long as production has time, however, we were then told we had to deliver three months before the streaming air date. This was due to QC variations around multiple territories and also so the series can be translated into multiple languages.

In conclusion, the format itself didn’t really change, but the series structure and episodic beats did - especially as with no act breaks, upcoming teases or host wraps, we had to find other ways to keep viewers interested (like the BBC does every day!). With the larger D+ budget, production values went up. This combined with the creative freedom made the series far more rewarding for us as producer and definitely for Disney viewers. Making shows for the streamers will soon become the new norm and the future of programming.

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