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Formats Unpacked: 10 Things I Learned About Brilliant Formats

Hi All,

This week marks the first birthday of Formats Unpacked.

For the last 12 months industry experts have deconstructed their favourite formats in an attempt to get to the hear of what makes them special. We’ve covered TV formats, radio formats, podcast formats, online video formats, newspaper and magazine formats, sport formats, book formats, graph formats, meme formats, joke formats, and more.

To make the occasion I wanted to look back at what I’ve learned from all the great thinking and writing that has graced these pages in the last 12 months.

  1. Make it hard for the person being interviewed to lie

In her unpacking of online video series The And, Katie Connelly talked about how choosing the right person to do the interview can create dramatic moments:

“Making someone’s closest partner, ex, friend or relative become their interviewer is a clever trick - it’s much harder to lie, sugar-coat or bluff when being looked directly in the face by someone who knows you, as opposed to an unknown interviewer from a production company. Watching feels like being in a viewing gallery for relationship counselling.”

  1. You can tell the biggest stories in the smallest of ways

When James Caig unpacked the epic History of the World in 100 Objects he talked about how the size of the show played more than a small part in telling such a big story:

“The world is vast, its stories infinite. Yet this series sets out to represent humanity with a collection of objects that wouldn’t fill your garage, then summarise their significance in less time than it takes to cook your oven chips.”

Pete and Sophie on the couch watching TV
  1. Take everything and nothing too seriously

What RuPaul’s Drag Race does so brilliantly is it can take you from hysterical laughter to tears in the blink of an extremely long eyelash. This is one of the dualities Eliz Mizon talked about in her unpacking:

“The fundamental beauty of Drag Race is in the ability of everyone involved to simultaneously take everything, and nothing, seriously… As previously noted in Formats Unpacked, reality TV tends to fall in one of two categories: ‘warm and fuzzy’ or ‘uncomfortably harsh’. Drag Race manages to straddle a number of dualities including this one. Drag culture itself is born of extremes; a slick patchwork of over-the-top performances, costumes, and personalities, it values meticulous, idiosyncratic skill, shape-shifting fluidity, and bombastic confidence. It’s a marriage of silly camp with serious glamour. And so the show follows.”

  1. Find an existing format and simply take all the boring bits out

The first and only sports format so far came from Richard Gillis whose unpacking of Twenty20 Cricket proves to non-cricket fans like myself that you really can make the unwatchable watchable:

“In Twenty20 Cricket each team is allowed one innings to try and score as many runs as they can within a period of 20 overs (120 balls). So a short-form version of the game played over three hours rather than five days….The magic in Twenty20 is that it’s cricket with the boring bits taken out. It’s for people who don’t like cricket and it’s been the most influential sporting format of the last twenty years.”

  1. Don’t fall for the trick that you always need tension

Nick Parker’s thoughts on what the magic of The Repair Shop is made me feel really optimistic about the world of TV, for a very brief moment:

“Zero tension. Always. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor’s description of Lake Wobegon: in the Repair Shop, everybody is always nice, nothing is too much trouble, and all the endings are happy…. Which is quietly radical for this sort of show, which are always in one way or another built around a fundamental tension – either between the team and the guests… The Repair Shop is having none of this. It’s 100% calm, caring and just really, really, really kind. On paper, it should be suffocatingly saccharine. Yet it’s not. The careful avoidance of all tension gives it a quietly grown-up vibe… If we just stopped with all the histrionics and manufactured drama, it seems to be saying, we could literally fix anything.”

  1. Mash it up

When Lynsey Martenstyn unpacked A House Through Time I’d never given much thought to genre mash-ups but now I can’t resist trying to combine my own guilty pleasures in an attempt to create something more wholesome:

“A House Through Time is a mashup of two of my guilty favourite TV genres: history and property. The series allows you to oogle around a lovely old house, whilst learning, making you feel more cultured and less guilty about willingly wanting to spend your free time staring longingly at someone else’s cornices (but what lovely cornices they are.”

  1. Make it an act of communion

At Storythings we like to ask a client ‘How do you want your story to make the audience feel?’ at the start of a project. There was something about Phil Adams wonderful unpacking of Tim’s Twitter Listening Party that made me quite emotional, which is a testament Phil’s writing and to the power of the format itself:

“First and foremost, it is an idea of its time. Tim’s Twitter Listening Party was a response to the Covid-19 lockdown and the curtailing of social activities. It is a public service that slakes a desperate thirst for community and connection and optimism. It provides an outlet for important emotions and guilty pleasures that were beginning to feel like trivial luxuries in the context of the virus - nostalgia, hero-worship, and obsessive nerdiness to name a few… As befits a public service it is entirely uncommercial. It is a gift, a product of the guileless generosity of its host.” 

  1. Ask one simple question to get multiple stories

Ian Sanders is no stranger to the importance of place in the stories people choose to tell. So I enjoyed reading his unpacking of the radio show Where Are You Going in particular the parallels he draws to another great location based format Humans of New York:

“The magic is in that one question: where are you going? There are follow up questions but the story’s great reveal starts, every time, with those four words. What it shows us is that within busy streets all over the world, we are surrounded by a rich seam of human stories. This question is the axe that chips into that seam, allowing it to be mined for the jewels hidden within. It’s a format that can work in any town or city.”

  1. Play to your host’s strength, even when they operate on a different reality altogether

Storythings founder Matt Locke had a brilliant insight about The World According to Jeff Goldblum which made me think about how the host can bring a new journey layer to shows like this:

“This show does something really interesting and different. Rather than cutting between lots of tightly scripted set ups, the show has a looser structure - like the jazz piano that Goldblum famously plays. There are scenes where Goldblum is just rambling to camera, letting the thoughts spill out of his brain unedited, and the show just goes with it… Nothing ever happens quite how you expect it, so you end up immersed in what it must feel like to hang out with Jeff Goldblum, even to be Jeff Goldblum. This is a travelogue format, not to a place, but to a person.”

  1. Invite people in

When Carol Nahra unpacked one of the best TV formats of the last decade, Gogglebox, she noted that even the simplest of props, and shots, can make a format feel more inviting:

“With a carefully curated blend of age, class, ethnicity, occupation, and geography, there’s seemingly someone for everyone. Their front rooms - and the outside of their houses, including their bins - are inviting signposts that it’s time to settle in with old friends. There are often tantalising snacks on display - particularly at the Malone house, although they never seem to be touched.”

Thanks to all of you who have taken the time and effort to share your fascinating insights on formats with us. Together we have created this fantastic resource for anyone working in format development. I know from reader feedback that it has helped so many people.

Thanks to all our subscribers too. We really do appreciate you opening and reading the stories we share. If you’re new to Formats Unpacked hit the subscribe button and get it direct to your inbox every Wednesday. If you have a favourite format you’d like to unpack do get in touch.

Till next time.


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