Media Headquarters’ New Formats Focus: A Q&A With CEO Robert Cohen


Media Headquarters is recognized as a trailblazer in the original formats sector, having developed and produced multiple hit formats for platforms internationally. CEO of Media Headquarters, Robert Cohen, has become an in-demand authority on original formats in thanks to his innovative thinking and advocacy for the Canadian formats sector. Appearing as an expert at various conferences, on podcasts and more, Robert has been fighting to grow Canada’s position as a leader in original formats. Looking back on Media Headquarters’ Smartest Person format, Robert answers questions about the company’s ingenuity in this area and how they achieved success .

Q: Canada’s Smartest Person is one of your most successful original Canadian formats. Tell us about it and its achievements.

A: Since Canada’s Smartest Person premiered in 2014, there hasn't been an original Canadian format with the same degree of success both in the country and internationally. Nationally, it’s run for five cycles and was spun off into a kid’s version called Canada’s Smartest Person Junior. There are very few examples of this longevity and success. It was the number one new Canadian show in its first season, had the largest prime time audience reach on the network in its second season, and is the only Canadian format to ever get nominated for a Golden Screen Award for top-rated reality show.

Through this experience, Media Headquarters has become a specialist in this space. We’ve tried to use Smartest Person’s success as an opportunity to advocate for a greater awareness of the benefits of developing our domestic formats business – a business which we have been mostly left out of on an international scale. I think Smartest Person points towards a new model for developing Canadian formats and exploiting them internationally.

Q: What made you want to take the Canada’s Smartest Person format and make a kid’s version?

A: The adult version was one of the biggest format successes for CBC, so it was a natural spin-off opportunity. We are looking for ways to keep the format innovative, fresh and new. The audience for Canada’s Smartest Person tends to skew younger and has the distinction of being the highest co-viewing audience on the network. So, it was natural to try to build off of the success we found with younger audiences by showcasing younger Canadians in the competition.

Q: What makes Media Headquarters a leader in the original formats space?

A: Media Headquarters has become a go-to production company for original formats for platforms around the world. We are passionate about building the formats business from a Canadian base. We have a unique knowledge of the partners, financing and the model of how it can work.

Q: What do you think are the key components to creating an original format?

A: To me, there are three key components when it comes to creating an original format: Universality, Adaptability and Scalability.

Universality means that at the core of the format, there is an appeal that is universal to all territories, to all kinds of people from all kinds of countries. A lot of reality formats and competition formats, whether it’s a social experiment or a game, have a key, universal question at the heart of them. For example, in the case of Canada’s Smartest Person, it’s the question “what does it mean to be smart?” Enduring formats often have a simple, universal question at the heart of them.

Adaptability means that in the structure and storytelling of the format, you’re a lot more likely to have international success if it is naturally adaptable to different languages and different cultures. We’ve found Canada’s Smartest Person, for instance, is highly adaptable. You can adapt the challenges so that they work for different cultures, different traditions and different languages, but it’s not going to change the show itself.

Scalability means that you’re much more likely to find success with a format that can be easily adjusted in range and size because different countries have different resources and budget expectations.

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