Despite growing up with a TV diet of Benny Hill, Jacques Cousteau and little else, Cécile Frot-Coutaz rose to her prominent role as ceo of Fremantle Media Group (a subsidiary of German group Bertelsmann) after creating online and interactive strategies for Pearson Television in San Francisco. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she served as executive producer on American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The X Factor USA while CEO of Fremantle North America.
Monocle: How do you make an identity for a company as large as Fremantle?
Cécile Frot-Coutaz: People define us by the big hit shows: The X Factor, Got Talent, Idol. From the outside you might say, “Oh, you do big shows, event shows, shows that touch pop culture.” There is the temptation to over-programme a genre but fatigue sets in. So in the past few years we’ve been trying to broaden the range of what we do and change our narrative. We still want to make event TV, we still want to engage – that’s a word that I’m increasingly interested in.
M: Has the idea of engagement changed over the years?
CF: I think it has. People have more choice so they are more engaged. Although 75 per cent of TV is still watched on a scheduled basis, it’s not the same as switching on your TV at 8pm and existing within four channels. Now people make a more positive choice from much more. People will go onto a catch-up service to watch a specific programme or will go to Amazon and download something. So although there’s fragmentation – fewer people watching any given show – the engagement is still there, maybe stronger than it used to be.
M: So many of your shows rely on casting – how much say do you have in the nitty-gritty of producing shows?
CF: Not as much as I’d like; that’s the fun stuff. I don’t do so much executive-producing any more except for American Idol – that’s the one that I kept until the very end. Do I have a view and express it from time to time? Yes. I’m not in the edit or control room though. So much goes into these shows and there’s nothing worse than someone coming in at the 11th hour and changing things.
M: What about the format business? Is that still going strong?
CF: Yes, very much. If you look at the schedules of most free-to-air broadcasters around the world and take out American scripted imports and local news and sports, you’ll find that most of the rest are local adaptations of unscripted formats. You’d find a Got Talent and an X Factor or a Voice and an Idol, and you’d find a dancing show, a dating format, or a Survivor or Big Brother reality thing. All those classic brands are still there.
M: How has your attitude to new platforms changed during your career?
CF: We’re not a channel, we’re a content provider, so we embrace all platforms. YouTube can be promotional, it can be a way to discover new talent; we use it in all sorts of ways. Netflix is a client. For us they are an opportunity but they are also a threat to some of our core customers.
M: How much has the world of TV changed since you’ve been in charge?
CF: The delivery and the way people watch it is different but what makes it work hasn’t changed. People enjoy watching a long-form drama the same as they did 10 years ago. Good stories are good stories. The content has not changed in the way people think it has; the way it is consumed has changed. At a very fundamental level TV is about emotion, about making people laugh, cry, care. These are the qualities of basic storytelling that aren’t going to change.
M: Do TV shows have to make their impact in a different way?
CF: Take a show like Narcos. This is a sign of something new that you might call “niche premium”: shows that would never have been made without someone such as Netflix with its international distribution. A regular broadcaster would never have made it because it’s expensive and high quality but advertising wouldn’t have paid for it. It’s about aggregating eyeballs.
M: Now that’s a quote!
CF: I mean having eyeballs everywhere! There’s something like Narcos and then there’s cheaper niche stuff; it’s the things in the middle that get squeezed, that aren’t as distinctive and still expensive.
M: What are Fremantle’s challenges?
CF: Keeping the existing brands as fresh as possible. Creative care: tweaks, casting; after every season asking the audience what they felt. These shows are expensive to make and you want the best return on investment. Then you need a healthy pipeline, like r&d in any other industry. The last thing is content that originates online. We’ve made some inroads but it’s very hard to make money. In the future will it all be subscription models? It might very well be because there’s probably not enough advertising to go round.
M: What did you grow up watching?
CF: Ironically not very much because I grew up with a father who thought the TV wasn’t for intelligent people. He was incredibly derogatory about it. There were two things I was allowed to watch as a child: Jacques Cousteau documentaries and Benny Hill. For some reason my father thought Benny Hill was the funniest thing ever and child-appropriate. I don’t know what the logic was.