As The Format Doctor, I examine the health of new-born formats. And one vital sign I always check is the number of its Decision Points.
Whatever the genre - reality or game, dating or prank - the format creator’s job is build a narrative that drives the main participants towards ‘moments’ when they must make a key decision that affects the action, and ultimately, the outcome.
Choose a question. Name the Weakest Link. Place your bet. Vote off a house-mate.
Decision Points serve several purposes:
Reducing complex issues to ‘either/or’ decisions makes the format easier to grasp.
Viewers don’t need to understand spread-betting to enjoy MONEY DROP, venture capitalism to enjoy DRAGONS DEN, probability theory to enjoy DEAL OR NO DEAL.
Like games designers, format creators are builders of worlds. We create closed systems within which people have very limited options. And this reassures viewers that other people’s lives can be simpler than ours - at least on TV.
Never mind that most relationships are messy, most bands don’t make it, 90% of start-ups fail. That's the real world, not the TV world.
A Decision Point shouldn’t just be a device. It must be evoke an emotion too, especially in a landscape dominated by reality and drama.
Take the money, or risk losing it all. Accept one DRAGON’s offer - but turn down the others. Couple up with a new LOVE ISLAND partner, but reject your current one - who may be sent home.
If your device doesn’t lead to an emotional response, rework it.
The best way to enhance the emotive impact of your Decision Points is to ritualise them.
Rituals imbue a ‘moment’ with significance by pausing the action, raising the heart-rate, and focusing eyes on the decision-makers and the people they affect.
Especially if you add in a catchphrase - You’re fired, I’m Out, You are the Weakest Link - or a sonic ‘brand’ like the GOT TALENT negative klaxon, or MILLIONAIRE’s Final Answer tone.
Viewers can play along in a quiz by answering questions or in a talent competition by voting - thereby making decisions themselves.
But Decision Points with heightened emotion enable viewers to play along on from the sofa by expressing opinions, rooting for a player, judging someone’s talent, appearance or character.
That’s what true interactive TV is.
I’ve said that format creators put people in sandboxes and limit their options.
But increasingly, younger viewers expect to see people taking more control of their destinies, - or at least, appear to - as in THE CIRCLE for example.
It’s a careful balance to strike though - removing the judges from a talent show in favour of online voting for example shifts the Decision Points off-stage and reduces onscreen emotion, and open-ended narratives often lead to ambiguous and therefore unsatisfying outcomes.
So we have clear Decision Points, turned into rituals, imbued with emotional significance, and underscored with catch-phrases and sonic cues, through which the main characters drive the narrative action.
That’s what I’m looking for in a healthy format.
But Decision points offer two more benefits. They help identify your IP. And that enables you to license it around the world - and also to protect it.
To sell a format, you need to have something to sell. And beyond the concept, that comes down to the defined format elements that are unique to your narrative structure, either because they are original or because you have combined them in an original way. Judgements about IP theft also depend on these tangible elements.
And if you look closely, you will see that the identifiable elements in a format often relate to the Decision Points within it.