Formats Unpacked: A Place in the Sun

How a format elevates quest over character to involve viewers time and time again

Hi all,

We’re off to the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity to produce a podcast. Caught Up on Cannes is your daily download of everything you need to know about what’s happening in Cannes while the festival is on - all delivered in under 9 minutes. We’re making it in partnership with the lovely people at UK Advertising. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. .

Just a quick reminder that our next Proper Fancy is on Thursday 27th June at 1 pm (BST). Proper Fancy is a team show and tell that’s open to everyone. It’s very relaxed - you can join in and share stuff, get involved in the chat, or just sit back and listen. We’d love to have you join us!

OK. On to the format. This week, Anna Faherty is unpacking a classic piece of TV escapism. Anna is a writer, trainer and author of Writing Online and Audio Stories. When she’s not binge-watching her favourite formats she can be found collaborating with some of the world’s best known museums.

Over to Anna…

What’s it called?

What’s the format?

An amiable property expert shows a UK-based couple five properties in a sun-kissed foreign land.

Each self-contained episode begins in the search location (usually on the beach), where one of the show’s roster of experts introduces the quest and the couple (usually partners, sometimes friends or siblings).

Participants arrive with high (some might say unrealistic) expectations: they’d like to be close to the sea with plenty of outside space and an area for Jenny to do her crafts/John to tinker with his motorbike/the grandchildren to play. However, strained budgets soon force them into tough decisions around size vs location, turnkey vs fixer-upper or whether they really need that spare room for Great Aunt Betty.

Episodes end with a debrief, a drink by the sea and (more often than not) an offer to buy one of the five properties. If the offer’s accepted, everyone raises a glass to the new pad in the sun. If not, well, blame those unrealistic expectations.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

A daytime TV staple, A Place in the Sun first aired in 2000 and is still going strong 67,000 minutes of sunshine later. According to YouGov, it’s the 36th all-time most popular TV programme in the UK, just one rank below The Great British Bake Off. What sets it apart from Bake Off and a slew of newer reality shows is how little time it devotes to character development.

Though A Place in the Sun’s formula includes all the essential ingredients to make an involving story – a character (or, in this case, a pair of them), a specific location, a challenge and a series of events that lead to a conclusion – we barely get to know the house hunters themselves.

There’s zero attempt to edit footage to construct any sort of ‘journey’ and I rarely find myself rooting for participants to succeed. Instead, I end up identifying with the experts, who also act as narrators. It’s the experts we meet episode after episode, and the experts who break the fourth wall to share their hopes and frustrations during the property search.

A Place in the Sun’s success comes, instead, from transporting us to sunny climes and enabling us to imagine ourselves on a quest for our own overseas property. In each episode we savour life in a new sunny location, snoop around other people’s homes and make snap decisions about which we’d buy and why – all in the company of a genial and knowledgeable helper.

Even if you lack the interest or budget to do this for real, it’s hard not to be drawn into each and every search. After all, we’ve all looked around potential homes of some kind, we’ve all been on holiday and who doesn’t get somewhat excited by the thought of waking up to a sea view, a swimming pool or a sunny roof terrace?

While the first series featured locations like Australia and the Turks and Caicos, current searches tend to take place in France, Spain, Portugal or Greece – all destinations that feel tantalisingly within our grasp. In comparison with other property shows, budgets are less ostentatious too, with one couple in a recent episode bagging a two-bed apartment in Spain for just £55,000.

Thanks to this air of achievable escapism, if I watch one episode, I end up lost in holiday-home quest after holiday-home quest. Binge-watch like me and you’ll no doubt start googling prices of potential properties yourself. The programme-makers capitalise on this by posting purchasing guides and sales listings on the show’s website.

The end of each episode is, of course, just the beginning of another story, but there’s no need to focus on what follows – by keeping the course of events open, A Place in the Sun allows us to imagine our life in that new home. A recent ‘What happened next’ series is, in my view, far less compelling, because I don’t really care about the people in the show, I care about the places, the properties and the life I might enjoy there – albeit in my dreams...

Favourite Episode

The consistent formula means every episode is a favourite! The most memorable shows subvert the familiar structure, like the December 2023 episode when the house hunters make an offer on a renovated French house before the customary seaside debrief.

Similar formats?

Sun, Sea and Selling Houses reveals more about the realities of living overseas and selling property there. Location, Location, Location, a UK-based search, feels more functional than escapist.

Thanks Anna,

If you’re partial to daytime TV formats or snooping around other people’s homes you might want to check out our unpacking of Grand Designs, Open Door and Bargain Hunt - they are full of fascinating insights into what makes a great content format.

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch. Or if you’d like to talk to us about content strategy and production, we’d love to hear from you too.

See you all next time,

Hugh

If you need more creative or strategic inspiration, please sign up for our other newsletters Attention Matters and the Storythings Newsletter. Join our network of over 12,000 creative explorers!

Join the conversation

or to participate.