Q&A: with Patty Geneste, CEO, Absolutely Independent

A tech-edgy media industry ravenously hungry for IP is upping the stakes when it comes to format rights protection, industry veteran, founder and CEO of Absolutely Independent and the new chair of FRAPA. tells Future Vision. 

Q. You’ve been in the business of creativity for quite a while now. Passion is probably a given but what other ingredients are key to creating a successful format?

A. Well, actually, it may sound odd but keeping it simple can be very important. A lot of people come up with a strong concept, but then they start thinking they need to build a big show around it. That's where they run into trouble.

Q. So the idea gets lost in the fray?

A. Not always, but it can happen. Respecting your gut feeling, that little voice inside of you that tells you you are on the right track, is also of major importance.

Q. And you clearly are on the right track. You have a new partner, Imagine Nation but then,  in this case, new is a relative word. You’ve known Kees Abrahams and Robin De Levita, the founders of Imagine Nation, for 20 years?

A. Indeed. So you might say that our partnership is the culmination of a lot of trust on the creative as well as the business side over the years.

Q. What’s the plan? We know Kees is a creative maverick in the formats industry and Robin is an award winning theatrical and live entertainment producer. Some would say you've got the goods.

A. And they would be right. Or at least we think so. Imagine Nation has three pillars of activity– live entertainment, film and TV--and our plan is to focus equally on all three. We’ll operate as a co-producer when we can but our aim is to become a global creative and business gateway for independent companies.

Q. And that would be a gateway to what?

A. To the best possible deals between the format creator, the producer and the broadcaster. For us, the interests of the creator will always remain first and to that end, we’ll also be investing in creative ideas at an early stage.

Q. And that's where Kees comes in?

A. It's no secret that Kees has a proven and remarkable track record in this area. As an example, one of the formats he supported at a very early stage, when he was CEO of SPT International, is The Exit List. That has been very successful in the UK and is now going to RTL Klub in Hungary.theexitlisthungary

Q.  Absolutely is a veteran of the format industry, has been around for 17 years and has the cachet that comes with that kind of history. So what's the secret?  Where do the ideas come from?

A. Everywhere, really, but at least 50% of the ideas, both in paper format and produced, are born in Holland. That’s not surprising, actually. This country has always been a good test bed for formats. The other 50% are cherry picked from around the world. The Genius, one of our latest, for example, is a very nice daily game show that we picked up recently from Tahiti. Then there’s The Start Up and Big Up, both very original award-winning formats from SABC in South Africa.

Q. The format industry has changed massively since the early days when it was mainly game shows like Jeopardy or Wheel Of Fortune.

A. That's right. There are more people, more companies and more types of programmes coming under the umbrella of the formats genre.

Q. If you look at factual entertainment formats, they are enormously successful but they also clearly require a lot of attention, tender loving care if you will. It’s takes more than just a nice idea on paper, right?

A. Absolutely. To begin with, these kinds of formats need a clearly defined and described structure and a production bible. For example, in a format like Find My Family, we offer a huge network of agents around the globe specialized in tracing lost relatives. The production bible for this includes a script on how to approach those lost relatives. These kinds of formats by their very nature need to be treated with respect.

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Q. Well, I think we’ve wandered into the heart of the matter and one of the biggest problems that the format industry faces. Do you agree? 

A. Completely. It’s a big challenge to make the media industry as a whole and players inside the format industry understand that formats and the ideas behind them need to be treated with respect—and that means not be copied.

Q. Technology has made that a bit more difficult, hasn’t it?

A. It has pushed it to another level, certainly, and made the formats business itself a significantly tougher one. Intellectual Property (IP) means more value so creating IP has became the main focus for many companies. Unfortunately this also means that we see more rip offs of proven format successes.

Q. Companies don’t want to pay for the rights and would rather build the IP for themselves?

A. Right. Companies that take this route also take shortcuts that can be costly. We’ve already seen, practically speaking and over and over again, that rip-offs fail.

Q. How so? How do they fail?

A. Usually people who copy try to stay away from the original by changing one or two elements but that’s exactly where the problem begins. Adaptation of formats is a very critical process. The expertise that makes a format a success is inevitably in the original.

Q. In other words, there is a high probability that what is changed might be elements that have already been tried out by the original format makers and rejected because they didn’t work?

A. Exactly. And the original owners would know that. The copycats won’t, hence the rate of failure among rip-offs.

Q. So is this just an immature phase in the industry or are rip-offs here to stay?

A. We think the relevance and importance of IP has become so big that it is actually stimulating more rip-offs.

Q. Well, you are the newly named chair of the Format Recognition And Protection Association (FRAPA) so the ball is somewhat in your court, yes? I understand that FRAPA is gearing up for a major global push to enlarge its membership?

A. Exactly. We are pushing to reach all new format makers and broadcasters moving into formats. We are very keen for them not only to join FRAPA but also to understand the protections it can offer. To begin with, once they join an international organization like FRAPA, they are basically telling the world that they intend to play fair, and that they want to be in the big leagues with the majors. That’s not an insignificant incentive.

Q. Platforms are multiplying, genres blending and interactive is fast changing the nature of the industry. If you projected yourself five years into the future, what changes would you expect to see on the format front?

A. Well, use of second screens will certainly continue to grow, as will interactivity, and branded content. WPP is the largest advertising network in the world and its subsidiary Group M is very actively involved in coming up with and doing deals for branded format content on behalf of its clients, as an example But I don’t see the desire for traditional types of programming and traditional storytelling changing.

Q. And that kind of storytelling is an integral factor with some of the more successful formats?

A. Yes. The kind of slow paced story telling that we see, as an example, with a format like Farmer Wants A Wife will still be in demand five or 10 years down the road. People want to be told stories. That desire is as old as human history.  Who would have thought 10 years ago that a format like Farmer Wants A Wife would be one of the most successful formats in the world?

Q. But brand advertising is changing some of the dynamics of the format industry? How does this shake out creatively speaking?

A. Branded content has been working for some time now, even on public television, and it will continue to increase. It works against the advertisers best interests to try to control a production and they know that. So creatively speaking, there’s no problem as long as the advertiser respects the fact that the broadcaster knows what works and what doesn’t.

Q. The proliferation of formats, and digital and technical developments, are all making the format business and the rights issues surrounding it more complex. What do you expect will happen down the line, say five years from now?

A. To begin with, buyers want more and more for the same price or an even lower one than before. And there clearly there will be adjustments in the future on earnings models.

Q. I think we’ve seen that knowing when to jump in and make the necessary adjustments can be critical. The music industry, as an example, waited too long to do just that.

A. Indeed. The relevant point is that FRAPA at this stage is in a unique position. We are a global trade body and capable of gathering the best intel on the industry and using our resources to advise our members when and where to make the adjustments necessary to keep the formats industry healthy.

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Captions:

Top right:  The Exit List Hungary. Photo  © David Grifhorst, Absolutely Independent and Sony Pictures Television.

Middle left: Find My Family. Photo © KRO

Bottom: Formats From Africa Pitching Competition. From left,  Absolutely Independent's Patty Geneste (judge),  1st place winner Onscreen Productions' Tony Kamau, 3rd place winner Okuhle Media's Louise van Hoff, host Zinkulu's Michelle Garforth-Venter and 2nd place winner Dreamcatcher Productions Martin Munyua. Photo © Discop Africa 2012