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Evolution of Television Formats: Where We At?

Heather Hale speeds us through the evolution of television, TV super-formats, international scripted formats, OTT - and new opportunities for storytellers.

Heather Hale speeds us through the evolution of television, TV super-formats, international scripted formats, OTT—and new opportunities for storytellers.

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 Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash

Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash

TV has evolved through two significant historical transformations and we’re right in the middle of its third metamorphosis—and its latest golden era.

In the Olden Days

When television first launched, its initial programming was offerings from just three triple-letter-branded broadcast channels: ABC, CBS and NBC. Real journalists delivered the news. Viewers could flip between highlights of national sports, live performances, variety and game shows. The Public Broadcasting Service provided documentaries and educational programming. Cinemas contributed letterboxed theatrical films. Made-for-television movies emerged.

Hollywood increased its profitability and the dissemination of Western culture by populating the rest of the world’s programming slates by syndicating our television shows and licensing our movies.

 Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Then cable disrupted the broadcasters’ world and started competing with original content custom-made for their platforms. The late 90s brought the much-derided explosion of reality TV, coinciding with Napster decimating traditional music business models. All the while, local TV markets started to mature in Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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TV Comes Into Its Own

Television—as a medium—broke into its full stride. its own storytelling techniques and methods developed into new unique genres never before seen in cinema or literature. These tested and proven formulas became known as “formats.” Some of these shows became break-out hits.


Four “super-formats” led this watershed: Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (1999; ABC), Survivor (5/31/2000; CBS), Big Brother (7/5/2000; CBS) and Idols (2002; FOX). Emerging local broadcasters and production entities couldn’t compete against Hollywood’s production, marketing and distribution expertise. Keen entrepreneurs recognized a massive opportunity for business expansion by “franchising” their shows as internationally consistently branded Intellectual Property (“IP”) assets.

Markets, desperate for local fare but lacking the know-how, de-risked their capital R&D investments and shortened their learning curves by licensing these successful “plug and play” shows, which came complete with turn-key production procedures and business models—just like any other franchise model. Fleets of IP attorneys flocked to the fray to protect the multi-media exploitation of the ancillary rights of the underlying intellectual property across multiple platforms and revenue streams.

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Their wide transnational success as cross-border exports was mined for deep local penetration as local co-productions. Talent more representative of their local target audiences, against more familiar cultural backdrops, replicated the material in indigenous languages to great success. As a result, indigenous production hubs sprang up to capitalize on their built-in territory advantage to service.

As the proficiency and expertise of the various global territories grew, these sophomores started exporting their own native shows. This increased the supply competing internationally with - and reduced the “foreign” territory demand for—Hollywood content. And it’s not just reality formats that travel well.

Scripted Formats Travel Just As Well

This international competition raised the bar both for foreign language and universal content, making the global supply chain more of a two-way street—or rather: more like a global air traffic map. Many familiar shows on US television originated from the UK, especially, but they come from all around the world: Australia, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands—to name just a few.

The Good Doctor, produced by Sony, airing on ABC, starring the brilliant Freddie Highmore as an autistic savant, was originally a South Korean series.

The Good Doctor TV series
The Good Doctor (South Korean TV series)
The Office (UK TV series)
Les Revenants (French TV series)

The Office famously made it here from across the pond. The Returned was reshot from the original French Les Revenants.

The Birth of OTT

Amazon Over the Top TV Network

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Netflix Over the Top TV Network

Photo by on Unsplash

One might think Hollywood’s well-established film and television industries were asleep at the wheel. While they squabbled over digital eclipsing celluloid and net neutrality, a little mail order disc company and an online bookstore grew into behemoths. Netflix and Amazon now compete head-to-head with the big studios on original content.

Bricks and mortar video stores went the way of the buggy whip. What used to be referred to as “the fragmentation of the dial” has new generations cluelessly asking: “What dial?” Cinemas are striving to reinvent themselves as “live” virtual event venues. Film, TV and web series festivals have become curating, marketing “channels” for their local communities.

The advent of television dramatically impacted the movie business in the 50s.

The Internet revolutionized the entire entertainment industry in the 90s.

Today, the convergence of technologies has transmuted the entire global media landscape.

The world is shrinking exponentially, momentously. Cultures and world views are colliding in ways never before experienced by humanity. That event horizon is at the convergence of film and television; the Internet and telephony; technology, macro and micro economics, social and environmental responsibility.

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Poverty-stricken masses in third world countries—without access to running water and no telephone or cable TV infrastructure in sight—have Star Trek-like toys and tools in their pockets. Smart phones that provide the equivalent computing technology that powered rockets just a couple generations ago now translate languages at the push of a button to bring literacy, job opportunities, preventative healthcare information and agricultural advice to their fingertips. Video content nurtures and instructs hobbyists. Unique, latent talents are connected to worldwide tribes of enthusiasts. While it might feel a little overwhelming or disorienting, all of this change presents a cornucopia of new avenues for original content creators.

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New Opportunities for Storytellers

“TV” has snowballed into an all-encompassing tsunami of entertainment, politics, commerce, education, mis- and dis- information. Blessings and curses abound. But infinite opportunities are erupting across the landscape with new categorical points of entry for Storytellers to manifest your “content”—and make the world a better place.


And find your place.

The world needs your stories.

More articles by Heather Hale

Need more great advice from Heather? Check out her on-demand webinars at The Writers Store!


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