This venture is clever because it moves cross genre, and not just cross platform, from reality to drama. The original, most successful blueprint for reality television worldwide is Big Brother, and Endemol has taken a brave leap from this original into genuine theatre by using its own self-made talent (Davina, Ziggy, etc) to further endorse the authenticity of the spin-off show.
For the uninitiated, Dead Set is a drama about Britain becoming overrun by zombies while BB contestants, cocooned in their own world, remain oblivious to the fact, but not for long. Its faithful depiction of the BB world is completely accurate – and I should know. As a housemate on BB in 2007, I can confirm the shallowness, technical details and general tone to be spot on with my own freakish memories of that weird experience (minus the corpses, of course).
The scheduling, immediately prior to Celebrity BB, and the Davina promotional material in which she states she was not a zombie at the conclusion of the commercial break was as excellent as it was refreshingly self-deprecating. C4 deserves huge credit for having the nuts to commission Dead Set and for recognising the enormous boost it potentially offers its premiere ratings vehicle.
It also highlights the myopia among other media properties, which limit themselves to squeezing onto tiny mobile phone screens or producing automatic clones of themselves online, rather than extending their footprint into credible new territories.
An example of one such missed opportunity is Richard & Judy. The couple used their afternoon C4 show to launch a reader-friendly, trustworthy and non-snooty book club, which is now one of the most influential forces in mass-market publishing. They reached up to 1.4 million people daily, and if a title was featured and endorsed by them, it virtually guaranteed sales success. Again, I should know, my first novel was not featured on their show, despite my publisher’s considerable efforts. We resorted to buying ten-second advertisements in the programme’s ad breaks, just to be close to their influence.
When Richard & Judy shifted to a lesser known digital channel, their audience plummeted from millions to tens of thousands, despite the heavyweight fanfare. If they had focused on the cross-genre option and migrated from chatshow hosts to solely commenting on popular books, I’d wager they would have been literary gods by now.
There are other examples of this innovative strategy. Transformers (“robots in disguise”) made the transition from plastic toys to movie. Marvel and DC have spectacularly propped up Hollywood box office receipts for a decade or more by moving from comic book to film with the likes of Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man. But these are more platform switches than genre moves. The best cases that I could summon up were Jamie Oliver and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Jamie Oliver is just a bloke, but he is also a brand – at least Sainsbury’s thinks so. He represents more than his A-list status because he has crossed genre from chef into government influencer and political agenda setter. He has championed work experience for disaffected youths and has single-handedly raised the issue of nutrition in schools into a public and parliamentary hot potato. From fat-tongued TV cook to national guardian of our children’s welfare is surely a genre change on a major scale.
Alternatively, Pirates of the Caribbean started life in the Fifties as an oddball ride in the original Disneyworld theme park. No one quite knew why it was there or bothered to question its relevance, but millions of people across three generations have queued, ridden and enjoyed its quaint charm. Then, some genius executive at Disney must have pointed out that this asset was totally unexploited, was wholly owned and could be re-invented as a movie/merchandising opportunity. Johnny Depp and three global blockbuster films later, the wisdom of that observation is apparent on Disney’s balance sheet.
Compare this to other properties that have sat fossilized, untouched and been left to inhabit boundaries defined at best by modest ambitions for minor platform extensions. Coronation Street, Blue Peter or the Evening Standard have, by and large, never extended their footprint beyond examining methods of delivery to their respective target audiences.
Dead Set as a drama is a pioneering moment for media because of its radical approach. This is surely an indication that Endemol is smart enough and has enough chutzpah to go from being a major worldwide production house with a collection of individual format ideas spread like seeds across the globe, to a fully cross-pollinated, lateral thinking force that will thrive and grow even in this difficult market.
The arrival at the company on January 12 of a new chief commercial officer from Disney, well versed in how to achieve this, can only mean one thing in my view. Endemol is going to continue to be seriously successful under the stewardship of Tom Toumazis and will show some of its competitors how business should be done.