A Brief History Of Formats Production

I believe I read somewhere that I needed to take into account the historical context and development of formats production. Since I’m here, right or wrong I find myself with little to do tonight before the party, so I figured I’d made like a student and do a post.

We had a lecture a while back which stated that all formats originated from radio shows in the 1920s. One of the original formats were ‘mystery shows’, where contestant were able to try and guess ‘whodunnit’. We’ve managed to get from treating the audience like Poirot to things like The X Factor treating audiences like sheep. It shows just how little is expected of formats audiences today (a sign of the times, perhaps?) The context of formats production has, like all other media, changed drastically over time. We can only hope that with media converging on the internet, more engaging and ‘intelligent’ shows can become accessible once again.

Naturally, not long after the radio shows came the television format productions. Radio dominated formats throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with television then picking up the mantel all the way until the late 1980s. Formats then seemed to take a dip – it wasn’t until ITV got into trouble and The X Factor bailed them out that formats really started to take off again (even though it, as a concept, never really left).

The first television game show format was a show called Spelling Bee, which invited guests to spell complicated words. Originally it was a high-risk affair, and didn’t take off properly until the UK broadcasters merged with the US. After that, the rest as they say is history, and formats began to be seen as a good way for broadcasting companies to make money. Formats were cheap to make, and yet they attracted a wide audience. The trick was to make shows repeatable – high start-up costs, and then low production costs thereafter.

Notable format shows include Name That Tune, which was also born out of a radio show. It took off as a TV show in the 1950s, and was based around guessing a mystery song (to a certain extent incorporating factors from the mystery shows of the 1930s before it). My own radio show took elements from this classic formats concept as well – the difference is that we used correct answers to improve the chances of winning.

Speaking of my own productions, I thought the second production was very similar to that of the line-up rounds in Never Mind The Buzzcocks, which has been a long-running format production of more recent times. The title of the show is a play on words – ‘Never Mind The B*llocks’ was the title of a Sex Pistols album (subsequently, their first and last). Of course, The Buzzcocks was a band from the same era. The show is heavily based around themes in music heritage – I can now understand why my radio production ‘Sixty Second Song’ should have featured questions about music. The title implies musical themes within the show, whereas the only musical tune really featured was the mystery song at the end (which wasn’t played fully anyway).

One show that did exactly what it said on the tin was Candid Camera, a show born out of the late 1950s. It started to get popular when the infamous ’empty engine’ trick was played in the 1960s. Here is another classic from the show that’s still running to this day:

This ‘pranking’ format was incorporated into further shows, one of the most successful being Beadle’s About, a show hosted by Jeremy Beadle. Noel Edmonds was also a notorious prankster from the same era. Both presenters hosted a number of formats based around playing pranks on people, and to this day shows like Punkd still use the same format. It is because formats are so easily repeatable that other shows can imitate previous ones. One could argue that to a certain extent not a lot has changed in the structure of formats since the beginning – sure, the audiences are perhaps treated differently, and different genres of formats have been explored. But the underlying trends are still there: prank, celebrity, quiz, elimination.

Beadle’s About became most popular with the infamous ‘alien’ prank, but what made Jeremy Beadle more significant was the fact that he bridged the gap between setting up pranks himself, and then hosting the show You’ve Been Framed, which was a format show developed in the 1990s, and involved audiences sending in their own videos. Today, we’d probably call most of the content of this show ‘viral videos’.

Of course, you couldn’t talk about formats of today without mentioning The X Factor, which seems to be the epitome of formats production today. As all media begins to converge on the internet, it is this formats show which will fight online content and see the official broadcasters through. It is mass-produced, pro-establishment entertainment, and a mass audience has become hooked to it. In terms of Adorno’s ‘authentic’, this is about the farthest from. Only earlier today, I was speaking to fellow lecturer about how I felt like I was in a 1960s-style movie. You know the sort, where JFK gets assassinated in the background of the main narrative, to set the context for the time in which the movie is set. That’s how powerful The X Factor is now, no exaggeration – I personally hate it with a passion, but I can rarely go through a single day as it runs without people talking about it. People you walk past on the street can be overhead discussing all the contestants. Is it just sad reality, or is it something more?

Whatever your thoughts, The X Factor is one of the most successful formats ever created. It has brought together an entire history dating back to the 1920s, and it seems that formats production has finally cracked what it has been seeking to do all these years – dominate the news, dominate the television, and dominate the mass audience. If you like conspiracy theories born of the ‘Hypodermic Needle’ model and the such, look no further.

However, since we seem to have caught up with ourselves, I feel I should just give a brief mention of some of the future formats that will be gracing our online screens in the future. Shane Dawson is an online comedian who does a show of his own name, where he plays a recurring selection of stupid and insane characters. Every episode they do different things, but the characters and set up are the same. For online users, some of the sketches are perhaps not considered as ‘cheap’ as official broadcasters would see it however.

As always, in a post like this my favourite Equals Three is around once again, now having gone (as I had predicted many a month ago) viral, and becoming one of the most-watched shows on Youtube. It features reviews of the top three viral videos of the week on Youtube respectively. It has become so popular, it’s actually merging and taking the mickey out of other shows now, making the assumption that audiences understand the context of classic viral videos AND the shows it’s mocking.

What is the future of formats? We can only find out once TV merges with the internet. My money is personally on user-generated content, but nobody can predict the future. Will radio still be the ‘place’ where formats originate from? Or is the radio going to become Youtube or some equivalent? Only time will tell.

To end with, out of Shane Dawson’s shows, I did manage to find this interactive episode where you effectively ‘played’ the narrative. It goes to show how interactive things are becoming now – the internet will open up new doors, and has the ability to change everything we know about media – formats included. This episode was special – it was a one-off, and not strictly a format. However, audience interaction is important in formats shows, and this is one way future formats could reach out to their audience:

–> But be wary, this episode did have some moments that genuinely freaked me out. It is a Halloween Special after all!


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