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Masked slips into UK


Acquiring UK rights to Korean entertainment format The Masked Singer proved far from straightforward for the co-founders of Scottish prodco Bandicoot. Karolina Kaminska reports.

Bandicoot tried to ensure its adaptation did not mirror other versions too closely
Bagging the rights to the biggest entertainment format of 2019 involved waking up at 02.00 every morning and navigating a Korean-language automated phone line, according to Bandicoot’s Derek McLean and Dan Nettleton.

The Masked Singer made its UK debut on ITV on Saturday. The show, in which 12 celebrities compete to pull off the best singing performance while their identities are concealed behind elaborate costumes, is based on South Korean format King of Mask Singer. A US adaptation aired last year on Fox, where it proved a huge success, after which it was only natural the show would travel to the UK.

But getting hold of the rights to a UK adaptation wasn’t easy for Argonon-owned Bandicoot, according to McLean, who points out that it was a case of “fastest finger first” to get in there before the competition.

“The format was on our radar,” McLean says. “We knew it from the Far East and that the Fox show was in development, so I pursued it by tracking down the Korean format holders, which was quite a challenge actually.

“I would set my alarm for two in the morning to get up and phone [the show’s sales team in] Korea, but it was just a switchboard number that was in a Korean automated voice.

Dan Nettleton and Derek McLean of Bandicoot
“It took me ages to do it; days and days and days with no luck. Eventually I got through to an English-speaking person who could help me and get me through to the right person, but he was away at a conference in China and didn’t want to do any business with me until he got back. I was really insistent and asked him to send me an email to confirm the deal, which he did.

“So we did it, we got the format, and a few days later I had a call from someone else in the industry. They were like, ‘You bastard, you’ve got the f****** rights to the show!’ And I realised I had been just ahead of a few other people. So I think we were blessed – we were lucky and smart.”

“We got more and more passionate about wanting it and that Bandicoot should be making the show more than any other British company,” Nettleton adds. “We didn’t know how big it was going to be, but we had a gut instinct that this was going to be big and that we needed to have this format.”

After Bandicoot had secured the rights, the next step was to find a broadcaster. So how did it find its home on ITV?

“Once the show landed, and landed well, in the US, the interest and clamour for it became much more real,” McLean says.

“At the end of the day it came down to the fact that we felt ITV was absolutely the right partner for the show. It understood the vision and shared the ambition for scale. We knew ITV could deliver and just felt it was a really natural home for the show.”

In bringing The Masked Singer to the UK, McLean and Nettleton wanted to ensure their adaptation didn’t simply mirror its international counterparts but had its own British feel to it.

“The original Korean format still, to this day, just uses paper masks over the celebrities’ heads,” Nettleton points out. “It’s very basic, although it still has quite high production values, but it was the Thai version that first used full-on masks.

“What’s different in our show compared with the US show is that we made our clues slightly harder. We’ve added more clues and have expanded upon the guessing game. We’ve also made our masks feel slightly more British; that was one of the things we tasked our costume designers with. We didn’t want to just replicate the US show. Our set is huge and is different to every other international version.”

The guessing game element also helps it to stand out from other singing-based entertainment formats such as The X Factor, Nettleton notes. “They’re different kinds of shows,” he says. “We’re not competing directly with the X Factors of this world because, while there is a singing element in there, ours is very much a guessing game and the focus is on that guessing game.

The guessing game element plays a bigger role in The Masked Singer UK
“We don’t have a panel of judges critiquing. There is no cynicism or competitive nature. Ours is joyous and about guessing who is behind the mask.”

Nettleton hopes The Masked Singer’s arrival in the UK will encourage other producers to take more risks with the types of shows they produce, as demand for quirky and crazy Asian formats picks up across the globe.

“There is a risk taken when you commission a show like this, because it is a Korean format, but it’s paid off for Fox and hopefully it’s going to pay off for ITV. As a producer, I’m hoping that this will bring more risk taking within the industry,” the exec says.

“My theory is you just never know where the next big hit is coming from. It might be something that you develop internally or it might be something from out of the territory. The Masked Singer is bonkers, fun, feel-good, light-hearted and funny and I hope we see more of that in primetime. There is a gap for that and we’ve got to exploit it.”

McLean adds: “It feels like the production community has a lot of goodwill and hopes that the show will do well because producers feel it will open doors for everyone as it is a bit different. If it’s successful there’ll be lots of opportunity for a lot of people to try other stuff, so I hope that’s the case.

“We are always open to looking at formats from other territories. Everyone can see and find shows around the world that they love on streamers and platforms like YouTube, so you’ve got to be shopping and hunting everywhere, which we absolutely are.”

Given Nettleton and McLean’s optimism for the format, can viewers expect to see a second season of The Masked Singer in the UK?

According to McLean: “We always discuss a second season from the start. We’re hopeful and excited that there will be one [for The Masked Singer]. We’ll have to wait and see. Watch this space.”

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