So, you want to create a game show?
A guide for the budding quiz devisor by games consultant
David J. Bodycombe.
This is a TvFormats guide to game shows, intended to give
advice to potential devisors who are interested in developing
their ideas in this genre. The author, David J. Bodycombe,
is a freelance consultant working in the UK, with experience
in television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, board
games and the Internet (see credits).
That (Action Time)
(i) DO YOUR
A – Watch television!
Before you anything, make sure you watch lots of game shows.
Nothing will scupper your plans quicker than if, after weeks
of development, you later discover that a nearly identical
idea has already been on air for the past three years. This
kind of situation has happened more than once before.
B – What's your genre?
Next, you’ll need to decide what kind of genre you’d
like to develop a show for. The genres of game shows have
been fairly static over the years, and most programmes fall
under one of these major headings:
ACTION/ADVENTURE – Typical elements
of an action/adventure show include custom-made sports games,
scavenger hunts, fantasy locations and role-play. Often
played as a series of timed games, and personal betterment
is often an underlying theme.
BOARD GAME CONVERSATION – Any sort
of programme that has been based on a traditional or proprietary
board game. In the latter case, this sort of show is only
possible by paying a license fee to the manufacturer of
Children's – Any form of programme
specifically designed for children (approx. 16 years and
under). Usually these programmes are commissioned from a
separate department than that of adult and family light
Comedy panel game – Specific type
of quiz or game involving a number of celebrity guests where
a certain proportion of the material is pre-scripted and
performed by the host or, in some cases, by the guests themselves.
Dating show – Shows concerning any
aspect of personal relationships. Usually involves playing
matchmaker to young contestants, although some recent shows
have concerned themselves with how relationships fail.
Educational – Type of factual programming
where a game element has been employed as a way of making
the information fun to learn.
Family game show – Wide-ranging term
used to describe mainstream primetime shows, usually presented
by well-known comedians, where general knowledge is not
a primary requirement. Often involves elements such as playing
physical games, tactics and luck.
Lifestyle – Relatively new stream
of programme taking a popular hobby or home interest, such
as DIY or cookery, and basing an essentially light-hearted
competition around it. Also includes shows where estimating
prices is the key ability.
Panel game – Game played by a group
of invited celebrities. Most of the humour comes from off-the-cuff
remarks and banter, as opposed to the more scripted comedy
Puzzle – Show where lateral thinking,
numerical ability and wordplay are important, but little
or no general knowledge is required.
Reality – Where a number of individuals
are challenged to work together as a team, usually over
a long period of time.
Quiz, general knowledge – Game where answering a wide
variety of questions is the key entertainment, although
tactics and minor physical elements may also be present.
Quiz, themed – Show where contestants
answer questions about a central theme. Often the rounds
and games are also tied into this theme. Includes some themed
Sports – Programmes where a recognised
sport is played, or the primary theme of the programme involves
sport in some other way.
Stunt/dare show – Programmes where
people are challenged to do extraordinary feats, usually
involving expensive large-scale games or danger. Sometimes
includes elements of practical jokes.
Technological – Specific genre where
competitors construct machinery under competition conditions.
Variety – Programmes which either
involve the search for new talent, or performances of established
variety acts as a central element of the programme.
C – You, the critic
Once you know what kind of show(s) you’re
looking to devise, research into that genre more deeply.
In particular, look at existing shows and critique them,
asking questions such as:
•What makes them tick?
•Is the pace fast or slow?
•At what time of day are these programmes usually
•What kind of audience is it designed to appeal to?
•Is it a mass audience or a particular niche? And
what age group?
•How does the scoring work?
•Is it played for prizes or just for fun?
type of host is used?
A – Any idea?
Next, you need to think of a basic idea around which your
whole show will revolve. In essence, your idea needs to
be two or three sentences that will sell the idea. If you
can’t encapsulate the idea succinctly, the chances
are your idea is already too complicated.
Thinking of an original idea is very difficult
to do. Quiz and game shows have been popular since the 1950s
and in those 40-50 years many ideas have already come and
gone. In our view, the two basic approaches are:
Come up with something completely new. It can happen from
time to time that a completely new idea occurs. One recent
example was Channel 4’s Fluke, which was almost an
anti-game show in that the outcome of the whole programme
purely depended on luck.
Do an old style show but in a modern way. What could be
more boring than yet another multiple-choice quiz? But Who
Wants To Be A Millionaire? has shown that you can take a
simple idea and re-interpret it to give it some new dynamics.
Some people argue that its not so much what the game show
actually is, but whether it’s executed well.
Perfect Match (RDF)
B – Some pointers
When thinking up your idea, try to bear in mind some basic
Has anything similar been done before? If so, has it been
at least several years since anything of a similar variety
Why would anyone watch your show? What makes
it entertaining? Quite often, people assume that their job
or hobby would make a good game show without considering
that not everyone else might find their occupation or pastime
Is there a strong theme that will "brand"
the show? In particular, is there a distinctive visual characteristic
that will make the programme instantly recognisable?
Do you have a TV channel and time slot in
Be realistic about costs. It’s possible
to achieve virtually anything in the world of television,
but everything has its price. Can you honestly say that
your idea will be able to be made on the kind of budgets
used by similar shows in the marketplace at the target channel
Is the idea international? A sports quiz
about the game of shinty might be great for Ireland, but
its potential will be severely limited in the global marketplace.
Team (Action Time)
C – Avoid the crowds
A number of themes are well worn, and you might want to
steer clear of these unless you are convinced that you have
a completely new angle. At the current time, some of the
most often-used programme ideas seem to be:
• Straightforward quiz shows involving
questions, categories and amounts of money.
• Quiz shows that make use of clocks and collecting
• Quizzes or makeovers based on DIY, cookery or gardening.
• Children’s shows that involve large inflatable
obstacles and gunge.
• Word parlour games.
Try looking for programme ideas that no
one else seems to doing at the moment. Before too long,
you may well find that the situation reverses to your benefit.
(iii) REFINE, REFINE,
THEN REFINE SOME MORE
A – Build it up then
knock it down
Once you’ve structured your idea into a prototype
format, you now need to refine the idea. From this point
onwards, developing a game show is actually quite a destructive
process. This is because you now need to look through the
detail of your ideas and look for faults. Then, if possible,
try to fix them.
B –Problems, problems
Here is a list of basic issues that need to be considered
at this stage:
From a television company’s point of view, one of
the main advantages of game shows over any other television
programme is that they can be recorded back-to-back –
that is, several shows are recorded in one day but are broadcast
as a daily or weekly series. The longer your programme takes
to film, the more expensive and complicated the production
process gets and therefore it will appear less attractive
to the marketplace.
There is a whole science to working out the technical practicalities
of a programme, but there are some common-sense things you
can check straight away. For example:
If the show is studio-based, is it going to fit in a studio?
Television studios are often a lot smaller than they appear
to viewers, because cameras use wide-angle lenses that make
the studio sets appear larger than they really are.
Does the set involve large mechanical constructions? Despite
their appearances, studio sets are designed to be taken
apart and re-assembled in hours. This is because studio
time is so precious and expensive that its often more cost
effective to re-build the set for each time you need it
rather than leave the set sitting in the studio unused.
For example, building an indoor rollercoaster within the
studio would mean that the programme would probably have
to be made within a large film studio – which can
be hired out at weeks at a time – rather than in a
traditional TV studio.
Specialists are always consulted to ensure that the programme
can be executed in a safe manner. However, even everyday
obstacles such as ramps and stairs can be extremely hazardous.
Other shows make a virtue of the aspect of danger. In these
types of programmes it is vital that the audience can watch
the programme safe in the knowledge that no one will come
to any harm, particularly if it is for a family audience.
If the show relies on a live broadcast, bear in mind factors
such as the time of year. This can effect the lighting and
weather conditions. There is not much point hoping to get
a live action-adventure show commissioned for evenings during
Autumn if that means its going to be pitch black outside
– the audience needs to see what’s going on.
If your programme is a quiz with a strong game element,
check that the game really does work. If possible, get some
of your friends to play an improvised mock-up of the game.
Take note of how long it takes them to understand the rules.
Does the strategy of the game reward contestants that take
risks and play offensively rather than defensive, sandbagging
play? A programme might be fun to play, but is it going
to be interesting to the viewers? In particular, is there
a "play-along" factor – that is, can the
viewers try to answer the questions, games or puzzles before
the contestants do?
Can the viewers see what’s going on? Sets for all
programmes are designed so that it is easy for cameras to
capture the action. Sets come in many different forms, such
as those used by Fifteen-to-One, Wheel of Fortune, Blind
Date and Celebrity Squares. One thing to bear in mind is
that most studios are not actually very high and so aerial
shots are quite difficult to achieve.
Does the format that you’ve now got actually fulfil
the aim you started out with? It’s often tempting
to adjust your idea in order to solve some of the other
problems that have occurred during the development process.
However, a consequence of this is that your format might
be very logical, cost-effective and technically feasible,
but the original entertainment factor might have been lost.
The difficulty with the refining stage is
that it’s difficult to know what the pitfalls are.
This is where agencies such as us can help. However, before
you show your idea to anyone, it's advisable to secure your
copyright on the format.
Watching and selling the format
A – Writing up your format
So, what does a format look like? Again, there are no hard-and-fast
rules, but a very detailed description would give most of
the information necessary to make the programme from scratch.
There is no set length, but generally they do not extend
much beyond 10 pages of A4 paper otherwise they appear intimidating
to read. It may contain some or all of the following headings:
Formats have been known to be accepted on
a scrappy piece of typewriter paper, and even during a lunch
conversation. However, conventionally it is preferred if
the format is neatly printed by a word processor.
The Fear Factor (NBC)
B – Approaching the market
i) – Independent production companies
If you want to get a game show commissioned, there are four
main ways of doing it:i) – Independent production
These are private companies that make programmes for broadcasters.
They live or die according to their success at winning commissions.
Some broadcasters, such as the UK’s Channel 4 and
Channel 5, buy 100% of their programmes from independent
production companies (or "indies"). To market
your idea to an indie, you need to write to the head of
light entertainment – whose details can be found in
publications – and enclose your format(s).
Most indies are generally very good at reading
formats and supplying feedback. Sometimes they will ask
you to sign a legal form that indemnifies them from any
court action regarding the copying of your ideas. Companies
do this because they often receive a number of formats that
are nearly identical.
ii) – Directly approaching a broadcaster
Public service broadcasters, such as the BBC, welcome new
ideas but are naturally reluctant to pay very much for them.
Some commercially broadcasters will read ideas and can grant
a provisional commission for good formats. However, you
will still need to find an independent company to make the
programme itself, although that’s not too difficult
if you already have a commission.
iii) – Use an agent
An agent will basically use the same two approaches listed
above. The advantage is that agents will normally have more
experience in negotiating contracts. Naturally, they will
charge you a fee or a percentage of your income form the
format for their services.
iv) – Format consultancies
Consultants are normally most interested in supporting of
new talent, and will make a point of providing feedback
on ideas and formats sent to them. They often provide additional
services that can increase the chance of the format being
sold. This might include commissioning professional illustrations,
calculating a programme budget, or designing a prototype
Like agents, they will charge service fees and/or a percentage
of income received for their services.
Other areas of the tvformats.com site give
further advice about how to protect your ideas and sell
A format sale is a product sale. The product
in this instance is a recipe for re-producing a successful
television programme, in another territory, as a local programme.
The recipe comes with all the necessary
ingredients and is offered as a product, along with a consultant,
who can be thought of as an expert chef.
In an ideal world, a format sales company
would offer the product with the unique addition of a master
chef who is the Consultancy Manager who oversees the implementation
and co-ordination of the necessary production 'know how'
and resources. The Consultancy Manager assigned to the format
sale would have an extensive range of international format
experience and is available to put the recipe and ingredients
together in a form where they can be delivered to maximum
Smart Test (FremantleMedia)
mIn order that the product delivery can take place, the
first task of the Consultancy Manager is to select the appropriate
resources with the Programme Producers (the Consultants).
When it is clear what the key elements are, s/he has to
consider how, to whom and when they are to be delivered.
The consultancy for every sale should be
tailor-made and managed on an individual basis taking into
account such parameters such as: genre of programme, specific
cultural requirements, language, budget, length of series,
timetable etc. The Consultant has to operate on a budget
with specific tasks to be implemented over a period of time.
It is these tasks that require expert and experienced management
in order to give maximum value to the sale.
Strip Search (Distraction Formats)
CHOICE OF METHOD
The second task of the Consultancy Manager is to look at
how best to structure the consultancy and to whom by first
establishing contacts with key production personnel in the
appropriate territory. It is at this stage that relationship
and confidence building is so important. (In territories
where English is not the first language an interpreter should
be appointed by the consultants.) The Managing Consultant
has to create a balance between listening to the questions
and concerns of both the seller and the buyer (the two sets
of producers). It is essential to talk through certain aspects
of the production and to send through only essential written,
audio and visual resources prior to the first production
meeting. The complete bible should form the basis of the
first meeting and full production meeting.
Once this stage of structuring is complete, and all parties
are agreed, the third task is to plan in detail everything
that has to take place. This is the moment to look at the
timetable and particularly the timetable of consultancy
visits both pre-production and production, bearing in mind
the key times when consultancy can be most effective and
have maximum impact.
Only when a production is hitting the expected
target ratings can a format be considered to be a successful
sale. Then and only then is the sale complete.
The Fame Game (RTE International)
What is format
There are two main stages in the development of a format:
a paper format and a TV programme format.
– the detailed written document that presents the
initial concept for a TV programme format
TV programme format
– the recipe and ingredients that gives the knowledge
to reproduce an existing TV programme in another country
Other useful definitions:
– a term used as a catch-all for the writers, authors
and creators that have an initial idea and develop it sufficiently
to create what we define as a "paper format".
"Paper format" agent
– An agent who represents a devisor and creates deals
with a buyer.
– A distributors who specialises in selling and delivering
format experience and resources.
Working definitions for formats
A definitive description of what a format is doesn't currently
exist. However, it is largely understood that there are
two key formatting stages in the development of an idea:
A "paper format" is the detailed
written document that presents the initial concept for a
television programme format.
A television programme format is the entire body of knowledge
that has been gathered through the production process, which
enables a television company in a particular territory to
reproduce the success of a programme that was originally
made elsewhere in the world.
(i) Paper formats
John Gough of Distraction Formats expands on the definition
of a "paper format":
Paper formats are the documents that bring content to concept.
They are written as the first step in the production process
for programmes of most television genres. They are written
as a description of a programme's basic idea, its content,
its layout and its style. These documents are initially
a viability study of the idea and often a selling tool.
They contain the first set of ingredients
on which the final format recipe is based. They are the
catalysts around which all the resources that go into producing
a television programme first start to gather. They develop
as the production process moves forward taking into account
the influences of the various production requirements such
as casting, set, budget etc. evolving into the format bible
and pilot programme. If the paper format is sound, the television
production will be sound.
(ii) TV programme formats
Michel Rodrigue, CEO of format specialist Distraction Formats
offers this definition of a TV programme format:
A TV programme format is a recipe which
allows television concepts and ideas to travel without being
stopped by either geographical or linguistic boundaries.
To achieve this, the recipe comes with a whole range of
ingredients making it possible for producers throughout
the world to locally produce a television programme based
on a foreign format, and to present it as a local television
show perfectly adapted to their respective countries and
What a "paper format" contains
So, what does a "paper format" look like? There
are no hard-and-fast rules, but there are two versions that
are commonly used...
A long-form "paper format" is a very detailed
description that would give you most of the information
required to produce a programme. There is no set length,
but generally they do not extend much beyond 10 pages of
A4 paper otherwise they appear intimidating to read. It
may contain some or all of the following headings:
• Programme title
• Target audience
• Suggested time-slot
• Length (mins)
• Brief outline (2-3 sentences)
• Outline running order
• Round structure (if applicable)
• Detailed synopsis
• Sample games/questions (if applicable)
• Suggested presenters
• Set design
• Outline budget
• Merchandising opportunities
A short-form paper format... is used as a selling document.
It is a much briefer version of the long-form format. It
is often only one or two pages long, and is used as a selling
document to arouse further interest from broadcasters and
production companies. It might only contain the title, general
principle, target audience, suggested host and a few sentences
outlining the rounds/games.
Quite often its necessary to go through
the process of writing the long-form format which you then
condense down into the short-form version
The Right Fit (Telefactory)
Why do people buy TV formats?
The market for television programme formats exists because
all the knowledge that surrounds a formattable programme
or series is valuable. The success in one territory, if
handled correctly, means instant success in another. An
audience receives locally produced programmes with a known
We say "if handled correctly"
because one often has to take into account the value system
of a country. This is more than just language barriers –
it's also to do with the social attitudes of a country towards
family life, physical contact, religion, alternative lifestyles,
taboo subjects and so on.
A successful implementation of a format
therefore takes the essence of a given formula, but nevertheless
can allow for some degree of leeway in the actual implementation.
Sometimes the format is adhered to rigidly, and other times
it is tailored heavily, dependent on the culture in a particular
Alternative Love (ECM)
Although there are sometimes geographic and linguistic problems
to overcome, many format devisors and format owners recognise
the significant benefits available in the international
The simple benefit is that licensing deals
allow the format to be sold many times over. Television
is now a global industry, and therefore sales of formats
are global too. A strong format can be sold to well over
50 countries and maybe more.
Therefore, format devisors and owners need
to harness this international market. However, this can
be difficult, particularly as there are hundreds of companies
and thousands of people who attend over ten key markets
The Enemy Within (BBC Worldwide)
TV programme formats vs. TV programme sales
To sell a TV programme...
...implies that you are actually selling
pre-made episodes of an existing show on tape, to be broadcast
in a different country. These are often dubbed or captioned
into another language.
To sell a TV format...
...implies selling the buyer a package of expertise about
the programme so that they are in a position to make their
own local version. This knowledge is available to the buyer
as some or all of the following:
• Format guide and production "bible"
• Blueprint and specification of set
• Visual graphics
• Programme tapes
• Computer software
• Scheduling slots
...and all the inside knowledge that makes
the format 'work'.
Dog Eat Dog (BBC Worldwide)
Protecting format rights: Case law
The law does not recognise formats because, from a legal
point of view, formats are ideas which are not covered by
traditional copyright and patent legislation.
The most frequent law case quoted on this
matter is that of Hughie Green versus the Broadcasting Corporation
of New Zealand. The case was considered by the Privy Council,
New Zeland's highest court of appeal, before being rejected.
This established that there was no copyright
in the format per se in the talent show Opportunity Knocks.
However, there are a number of ways in which the elements
that make up a format can be protected.
There is no such thing as a format right,
BUT format rights are bought and sold each week for large
• Legal means of protection includes copyright, trademarks,
confidentiality and contracts
• Pitch your idea "in confidence"
. Acquire a confidentiality agreement and try to obtain
a signature before pitching your format.
BTvFormats is indebted to David Bodycombe
for writing the FAQ part of the site. David is one of the
UK's most active games devisors, acting as an advisor and
author in many different media. He has contributed to numerous
television shows including The Mole (Channel 5), Sub Zero
(BBC2), and five series of The Crystal Maze (Channel 4).
He is currently developing a unique game element to complement
Pyramid, a major BBC 1 documentary, and piloting his own
game show with S4C (Channel 4 Wales). On BBC Radio 4 he
appears on the problem solving show Puzzle Panel, and is
also the researcher and question setter for the treasure
hunt game X Marks the Spot. David has authored numerous
highly acclaimed puzzle books, and writes 1000 puzzles a
year for columns in periodicals such as the Daily Express,
the Big Issue and Metro. His most recent book is entitled
How To Devise A Game Show.