Stephen Tate, Network Ten’s head of entertainment and factual programs, has been on the road a lot for the broadcaster recently.
“This is the best part of my year…I love doing I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here,” he told Mediaweek, speaking just after arriving in South Africa in preparation for season three of the series.
Tate had his passport stamped a lot in 2016 – he spent five months of the year away from home overseeing both I’m A Celebrity and later in the year Australian Survivor.
Tate has worked for Ten on Celebrity since launch and he did the first reconnaissance visit to South Africa when it was being considered as a possible site.
“You have to be careful not to change too much too quickly,” is his reply to a question about what viewers could expect in 2017.
“We have a very loyal audience and they have come to expect a fun, family show. We are happy to keep delivering that. The format changes fundamentally each year by changing the cast. Our job is to keep that cast engaged and surprised.
“What happens on this series is that the cast arrives thinking they know what to expect from watching a previous series. Our job is to mix it up enough to throw them off guard.”
Tate said they don’t try to lure contestants with false information. “We certainly don’t play down how tough it is to be on the show. It is a very hard and confronting thing to do. While it is a lot of fun and a huge personal challenge for everyone that does the show…it is tough.
“It is tough because of the social deprivation, being separated from family and friends, things all of us take for granted.”
Although Tate said there is almost a small city in operation not far from the celebrity camp, he noted it was close to two kilometres from the contestants. “They are deep in the jungle and they don’t see us. With the exception of the celebrities that are voted by the public to undergo a trial each day, they can go days without seeing a crew member.
“For celebrities who have never been camping before or done anything like this it is a huge adjustment. On top of that they are detoxing. What we do know is that around day four the whole camp gets very cranky. [Laughs]
“Some contestants enjoy every last minute of their lives before they enter the jungle, while others go into training and start weaning themselves off coffee, alcohol and sugar to make the adjustment easier.
“Merv Hughes partied pretty hard before he came in and then didn’t get of his backside for four days. I’m not sure if that was a strategy.”
The show has come close to signing big stars who have backed away at the last minute. Tate admitted that can be very disappointing. “It is a very complex process to cast a show like this. Every time you lock in someone, it can change what you are looking for from the rest of the cast.
“We are looking for a big dysfunctional family to live in the jungle.”
He added quickly: “We don’t cast for conflict. We find the experience is enough of a challenge. We are not setting out to have a show that is bitchy or nasty. We want a group of people the audience is going to fall in love with and then watch what unfolds.”
Tate and his colleagues don’t relax after signing a cast member or when they hop off the plane in South Africa. He can’t be sure they are actually on board until they step into the camp. “Anything can happen before that. When we cast Maureen McCormick in season one we had no idea whether she would actually show up. She told me when she stepped off the plane she thought she was coming to Australia! [Laughs]
“This is possibly the most remarkable production I have ever worked on – we are putting to air a live variety show five nights a week from the African jungle! Initially it was daunting, but it is now the best creative challenge we could have.”
Unlike formats where everything is finished before the show goes to air, Tate said they are able to use audience feedback to help them make creative choices during the series.
All people we spoke with from Ten and ITV indicated discussing any possible cast members was off limits. However, Tate did tell us: “Two of the cast have had direct contact with Donald Trump, which was a happy accident.”
The production jungle
CEO and managing director of ITV Studios Australia David Mott oversees the Celebrity format in this territory and his team produce the series for Ten.
“As we make each season we become a bit more match fit for what is a big undertaking,” he explained to Mediaweek just before he caught his plane to South Africa.
“We learn each year how to better finesse the production and maybe build it up in certain areas to make it even better.
“The first thing we do whenever planning a new season is to review the previous season which we do with the network. Ten has been a great partner on Celebrity and they believe in the brand.
“We had some good audience growth last year and we have a few initiatives for 2017 that we think the audience will respond to.”
Viewers seemed to like the cast a lot last year from Shane Warne to Brendan Fevola, the latter winning the second season.
“This year we had a number of celebrities who approached us to be on the program which is always encouraging. The Ten Network has secured a great cast this year.
We want them to be a surprise when the series launches and we then want them to be entertaining throughout the season.
“We think there will be a lot of humour this season.”
When asked about the competition on Seven (MKR) and Nine (Married At First Sight), Mott called it “formidable”. He added: “In discussions with Ten’s [chief programming officer] Bev McGarvey and Stephen Tate they know very well where Celebrity should be positioned in view of the competition and we are working to deliver on that creatively.”
Mott said many of the production crew are locals supplied by Triosphere, a South African production house.
As to differences between the international editions of the format, Mott said there are cultural differences. “When we look at what we help produce for the UK it doesn’t necessarily reflect us here, particularly in the type of celebrity they might feature.
“But ITV has provided a pretty good bible to work with though after 16 seasons in the UK. We can learn a lot from them and some of the team who work in Australia on those versions also work for us in South Africa. They know the format inside out and some of the hurdles we face along the way.”
The biggest differences between the formats are pretty dramatic – the location and the number of weeks on air. “The Australian edition is on air for double the number of weeks that the UK edition does.”
Mott said the production team rises to the challenge of the quick turnaround required, something that was essential too for anybody working on Big Brother.
“Any filming we do needs to be turned around in a day before the show goes live. Finding executives who can do that can be hard because there haven’t been too many shows made like that.
“You can fix some wrongs in shows when you have the luxury of long lead times in post-production – we don’t have the ability here. It is an intense period during the production to make sure they properly cover and capture everything that happens.”
Ten Network and ITV have a facility on location in the jungle that they return to every year. “The site was purpose built for the first season and we maintain it every year, setting up the equipment every year when we return,” said Mott.
Unlike the Australian site of I’m A Celebrity, which is used for both the UK and German editions of the format, the South African site is used only for the Australian series.
“Potentially we could share the South Africa location with other territories, but that hasn’t happened to date,” said Mott.
This year more than ever the production team features current and former Ten Network executives.
Joining Mott will be Tim Clucas, a former head of production at Ten. He comes to ITV as the supervising producer working across Celebrity. Also working on the series for ITV again is Alex Mavroidakis who was a former EP of Big Brother for both Ten and Nine.
Tate told Mediaweek: “It gives us a great deal of comfort as a network to know there is a shorthand between the key production individuals and ourselves. We understand what each of us brings to the party and it works really well.
“There are always creative tensions, but that is a good thing. I find sometimes on shows where everybody gets along that things may not go so well.
“There is a real rigour on this production because we all know each other so well and keep each other honest.”