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  • Justin Scroggie

Format Hybrids: the worst of both worlds?


Fancy a drop of hoisin sauce in your coffee? A parfum blending the delicacy of jasmine with the jagged bite of diesel oil? A Swiss valley dotted with cows, edelweiss and burnt-out cars? If you, so probably like a mixed-genre, or hybrid, format. If not — like FRAPA friend, supporter and Format Doctor Justin Scroggie — you probably really, really don’t…

Like Dr Frankenstein, creatives love to mash things up. At every industry event, I sit in an auditorium and sigh as people around me react to the latest grabby concept for a mixed-genre format. And I know that few, if any, of these stitched-together monsters will still be breathing by the next market.

Here’s the bad news.

There are three sets of people who don’t like hybrids: viewers, advertisers and buyers.

Viewers don’t just watch TV. They watch the TV they feel like watching. And faced with terabytes of programming, they generally base their choices on familiar faces, themes — and genres. Just look at how other retailers present their products. Bookshops, both real and digital, are surgically divided by genre: fiction, history, biography, sport, travel… Fiction is shelved by sub-genre: crime, romance, fantasy. There is no shelf for romantic sci-fi. Not because no one has written any, but because no one knows how to sell it, or who to sell it to.

The same applies to vast majority of movies produced.

It’s not that viewers always shy away from the new. They just sense that clearly defined genres are more likely to deliver the experience they want, and therefore to satisfy them. And they are usually right.

If viewers are conservative, advertisers are worse. They want to sell specific products to specific people. TV is aimed at a mass audience, making it a crude tool for targeted selling. So ad buyers need the shows around their commercials to appeal to as distinct an audience as possible. Which is a problem when your format is a saggy mess of a show whose genre would be a challenge anyone to define.

And then there are the buyers. Broadcasters come to content markets with slots to fill and a limited budget with which to fill them. By slot, I mean a set time in a linear schedule or a picture in a digital-first catalogue. Either way, the hardest show for a broadcaster to place is a hybrid.

Take Channel 4 UK’s format Quizness, which is billed as a ‘comedy game show’. Red flag. Is it a comedy? Or a game show? The channel insisted the prodco deliver both — and, by God, they tried. They really did. But writing questions that are funny, playalong and worth serious cash isn’t easy. Tasking a comedian host to appeal to comedy and quiz fans simultaneously is nigh impossible. You can’t just paper over the cracks with cracks.

And then they had to figure out where to put it. On Channel 4, quizzes are in the afternoons. Comedy is on Friday nights. So where do you put Quizness? In the end they put it on Friday night, where quizzers couldn’t find it and comedy lovers didn’t think it was funny enough.

The underlying problem is narrative.

Comedy and quizzes tell stories in different ways. A knock-knock joke and a multiple-choice question may both get a laugh if well crafted. But the way each narrative unfolds to deliver a punchline is not the same. This is where hybrids go wrong, because while the mashed-up idea grabs attention, the competing narratives can rarely be blended, either in production or in post.

I once worked on a format for pay-TV channel HGTV, which is dedicated to home improvement and real estate. However, HGTV had noted the success of a show called Till Debt Us Do Part and wanted to replicate its heart-ache-and-resolution narrative for their make-over-loving viewers. Now, get-out-of-debt formats don’t traditionally involve renovation and any real estate featured is generally being repossessed. Still, they tasked the prodco to stitch them together. The result would have made Dr Frankenstein proud.

I won’t go into detail. I will only say that, in most episodes, having forced the hapless couple to accept they were in an eye-watering level of debt, the solution offered by the ‘expert’ was to make over their kitchen. At their own expense.

In conclusion: don’t be tempted by hybrids. Yes, I know the concepts are grabby and, of course, ,there are a few noisy exceptions to the rule. But for the most part, producers can’t actually make them, viewers don’t understand them, advertisers can’t predict who will watch them, and broadcasters don’t know where to put them.

Right. I’m off to heat up a jellybean-con-carne.

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