Phil Gurin: Hungrier, Leaner and Ready

One of the big news on the international TV scene this year was Phil Gurin’s announcement that he is launching TGC Global Entertainment with the goal to represent premium formatted content, factual entertainment and documentaries. Several months later, the veteran format creator is ready to launch his new venture at the biggest business event of the year – MIPCOM Cannes.

A few days ago, Phil Gurin found time in his busy schedule to talk with Georgi R. Chakarov about his plans, the new company, the team, the creative and commissioning issues of the industry, the strikes in the U.S. and even how to make good wine and TV.

Family Singing Bee

Phil, you create, acquire, sell and produce hit entertainment programs all over the world, working on formats designed to be international in appeal. What is the main secret of a successful international format?
If I knew the answer to that, every show would be a hit. There was a very famous Hollywood screenwriter named William Goldman who wrote some very famous American films, and in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade he said, if everybody knew what would make a hit, there’d be no failures. So, nobody knows anything. It’s luck.

You don’t want to be so local in your idea. It has to feel universal, and that’s the key. And the only other thing I’d say in creating an international format is what audience is it for, does it have a universal theme or does it pose a universal question or problem or situation? Why would anybody watch this?
Another philosophy I have: I go to Disneyland and stand in line and look around and I look at the crowd because it’s a reflection of regular people lining up for Space Mountain, my favorite ride in the world. I look around and I think: “If I created this show, would those people watch it?”

Every year we see the debut of new formats around the world but many of them are derivative of each other. Can we say that the TV format industry is ‘tired’ and if yes what are the necessary steps needed to revitalize creativity? Besides going to Disneyland?
I don’t think the business is tired. I think the buyers are afraid because they don’t want to lose their job. No matter what country you’re in. Yes. The business is under pressure. But. There’s still room for a big tent, big primetime, or big daily idea. The perfect example in the US is Yellowstone which was exclusive to Paramount+. Once it moved over to CBS it started getting ridiculous numbers. It’s a monster hit. So, the audience will always show up for something that’s really good, or something they really want to see.

When you see derivations and reruns, if it’s the third version of a talent competition and it doesn’t feel fresh, the audience is bored. Reboots are great because it’s for older audience watching television.

I think the channels, the commissioners, the platforms, absolutely have to take more risk. It costs money to take risk, but they have to. If the buyers had a sense of creativity in their soul and a sense of adventure in their heart, and their bosses would let them try, it’s so much more interesting to watch an interesting failure than a boring middle ground reboot of an old show.

Canada’s Ultimate Challenge

We know why there’s spin-offs. The show was successful, it’s built in branding, it’s like a movie that 10 sequels. It promotes itself. We know that there is so much pressure on the advertising dollar. Marketing budgets are very challenged. So, if you do a reboot, or if you do a spin-off, your audience knows it.

Selling a new idea is hard and it’s expensive, but it’s also the most rewarding. It’s the best way to keep eyeballs watching television. Some of these companies, you get the sense that they’ve just given up and they’re just going to program to an older demo who’s still watching TV, give up on the young. They’re just going to try to make money because the business is run by bankers. A creative executive needs to go and fight the money people because they believe in this idea. A passionate creative executive, a passionate financial executive fighting each other probably will bring out great content.

You recently launched the independent international distribution company TGC Global Entertainment. Tell us more about this new venture and the goals you will try to achieve through it?
I’ve been able to watch the industry change multiple times over the last few decades. I see in a world of consolidation where the big companies just get bigger and bigger, and there are fewer players out there who are independent. I saw a hole in the marketplace because we are one of the few distributors led by producers and content creators and not bankers. We speak creatively. We are designed to help the independent creators and platforms. And based on my decades-plus relationships and the team that we’ve put together, we are able to cover the entire world. We offer uniquely an independent mindset, hunger and careful curation for those looking for an alternative distributor. Yes, you can go to the big guys, but maybe give us a shot as well, because we’re hungrier, we’re leaner, and we want to prove something. We will only take on things we believe in.

You have gathered an impressive team of experienced executives from the industry serving as your sales agents based in different territories. What is your business model and how do you coordinate the work process within the company? Who is coming to Cannes, and will you join them during MIPCOM?
We have sales agents who represent our catalog as well as other catalogs right now: Cecilia Ingebrigtsen is covering sales for Europe and the Nordics. Jess Khanom UK, Ireland, MENA, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and she does both sales and acquisitions. Malgorzata Gudel also represents other companies, but she is helping us with CEE. We also have our creative director here from the US, Grace O’Doherty. She covers creative affairs across both our production company and our distribution company.

The distribution company is focused on formats, factual programs and documentaries. Our production company will be selling some of our new paper formats because that’s what a US producer is known for. Our goal for the distribution business is to have two-thirds of our catalogue coming from third-parties, one third of our own formats in terms of catalog. We have some strong third-party content already, and we’re working to increase it. Bring us your best stuff!

Canada’s Ultimate Challenge

How big is the catalog right now? What shows will you be presenting in Cannes?
Right now, we have about 20 shows in the catalog. We have some factual shows. We have some finished program documentaries. We’re handling the CBC’s Canada’s Ultimate Challenge – which is currently shooting new episodes for the second season. The format is being radically changed, and we’re adding a social experiment to it. We’ve eliminated the celebrities in season two and we’ll be talking to our key buyers about this new format. We are bringing back The Singing Bee globally, but this time we’re also bringing it back as a family version, it’s called Family Singing Bee. We’re very excited about that version. We’ve reimagined it as a big family comedy entertainment party, totally different than all the other singing gameshows out there. We are very excited about Fridge Wars, currently in production on season two in Germany and Mongolia – two radically different markets! Both Singing Bee and Fridge Wars will have some exciting announcements coming shortly. We are launching at MIPCOM a show produced with Fuji Creative Corporation in Japan called Heavy But Rich, which is a physical comedy gameshow that we’re also very excited about. We also have an on-location surprise game show called Parking Lot Payday from AXS, and then we have beautiful new cooking series finished program called Yes Chef, which is just first class.

I think you already answered one of my other questions but which of your shows would you like to see rebooted?
Yes, we’re bringing Singing Bee back and it’s on the air right now in a couple of places. Family Singing Bee is a different version of it. We are also working with our friends at Warner Bros. International on a show that won the Rose D’Or as Best Gameshow called Oh Sit! which was a big giant physical comedy gameshow based on the kids’ game of musical chairs. Alongside Warner, we’re trying to line up a hub to bring that show back as a game for couples.

Have you been tempted to ‘dip your toes’ into scripted and what are the new grounds you would like to explore with TGC?
It’s down the road. We’ll get there. We are fully independent as a distributor. We have no backers, no investors. We’re doing it on our own.

Are you looking for such or?
We’ll see. When the time comes, we’ll see. I’m sure people are already calling us because we have a unique approach and collection of content and rights positions. There’s a format that we have from Israel called The Decision. It’s been on the air in a few countries already and we’ve taken the global distribution. Very excited about that one, too!

As a production company, The Gurin Company has always prided itself on international partnerships. Currently, we have partnerships in several Asian, European, Latin American and North American companies. We’re looking to create and co-create new content with the greatest creators from around the world. So, that’s something Grace and will be on the lookout for at MIPCOM. Every market to me is important because you just never know where you’re going to find the next big hit. You have to be open to it.

Heavy But Rich

What is your view on the strike in the US and how do you think it will affect the market? Will the network start commissioning more non-scripted, more entertainment?
I don’t think the strike had any impact on the unscripted business whatsoever, because it’s different. I’m a Writers Guild member and I support the strike very much. And I’m very happy about the new deal. The problem is budgets.

All these big companies, going back to my thesis, they’re run by bankers. They enjoyed five months of not spending money. It helped their bottom line. It didn’t change the viewing pattern or the viewing habits of the viewers. It’s because viewers are going elsewhere, and budgets are coming down. That’s the problem.

You are also co-Chair of FRAPA (The Format Recognition and Protection Association). What are the main challenges that content producers and distributors (especially smaller companies) are facing when protecting their copyright nowadays?
Nowadays, it’s the Wild West out there, to use an old American phrase. It’s terrible when big companies rip off medium and small companies. You’re only as safe as the industry allows you to be. FRAPA for me is all about mission and services. We like to offer education and networking opportunity. We have a wonderful format registration service. We do format analysis. We have an important Declaration of Cooperation, translated into 18 languages that we hope the world will adopt. But we also want people to become FRAPA members because they’re then telling the world, “I’m a FRAPA member, I’m an honorable person. You can do business with me.” So, come join FRAPA everyone!

And let’s finish off with a fun question because you’re also a wine guy. Can we say there are similarities between making good wine and making good television?
No one’s ever asked me this question! It all starts with an idea. It moves from the idea. Both need great ingredients. Both need a great team to make them. Both need to be a good brand that people want to try. And it all comes from a place of passion! Cheers! ′

Award-winning producer and writer Phil Gurin has been creating, acquiring, selling and producing entertainment programs for decades. The Gurin Company’s shows have aired on every major U.S. broadcast network, many cable networks, and in over 185 countries around the world. Gurin has won four Primetime Emmy Awards as an Executive Producer on ABC’s Shark Tank, and an international Rose d’Or for the comedy gameshow Oh Sit! which he co-created for The CW. The Singing Bee (NBC/CMT) is one of the Top 30 most produced original formats in the world. 

Gurin serves on the Board of Directors for NATPE. He is also Co-Chairman of the international non-profit organization FRAPA and serves for the Television Academy on the Executive Committee of the Producers’ Peer Group.

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