As Netflix’s ‘Next In Fashion’ Returns, Former ‘MasterChef’ Showrunner Robin Ashbrook Takes Old School Approach To Entertainment Formats
The streamers, led by Netflix, moved into the non-scripted entertainment space in a serious way about five years ago.
This coupled with the fact that the broadcast networks were still having disproportionate success with unscripted shows, opened plenty of opportunities for producers to create new entertainment formats.
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Enter former MasterChef showrunner Robin Ashbrook and Yasmin Shackleton, also an exec producer on the Fox cooking show, who launched The Old School, an independent production company in 2018 with Netflix’s The Final Table, the streamer’s first significant move into the food space.
Since then, the pair have worked with the likes of Helen Mirren, Tan France, Alexa Chung and Gigi Hadid on a number of shiny floor entertainment shows.
They are now gearing up for the premiere of the second season of Netflix’s Next In Fashion, a design competition series with Hadid taking over from Chung and joined by the likes of Hailey Bieber, Emma Chamberlain, Bella Hadid and Donatella Versace as well as a group of designers competing for $200,000.
Ashbrook moved from the UK, where he was creative director of unscripted at the then-titled Shine, to LA in 2008 and launched and exec produced nine seasons of MasterChef as well as launching MasterChef Junior and NBC’s Little Big Shots. Here, he tells Deadline about the shift from linear to streaming and what he is cooking up next.
MasterChef, fronted by Gordon Ramsay, was a big hit when it launched in 2010. But ironically, Ashbrook, whose company also makes Baking Squad for Netflix, had never produced a food show before.
“At the start, I thought, I know how to make a gameshow. What is going to make this food show successful with Gordon at the heart of it? If you watch the grammar and bones of MasterChef, I basically made that a game show because that’s all I know how to do, with food around it. The rule on that show was to have the audience guess every three minutes,” he said. “You could take the construct of that and it could apply to floristry, baking, singing or dancing. I’d like to think the perception of us isn’t that we just do food.”
Now, Ashbrook and Shackleton are walking down the catwalk with Next In Fashion, which launches its second season today, three years after its first season.
The show sashays in a similar fashion to other stylish design competition series, but, as with many of the hit formats, whether it’s American Idol or The Voice, it just adds something a little bit different for the audience to enjoy.
“I’m not afraid of broad familiarity. Audiences don’t always need to find something they have never heard of before. There’s Project Runway and Making The Cut, they’re both terrific shows, in the same way that there were four singing shows, but ours has a slightly different lens, and there’s room for all of them,” he said.
“Next In Fashion is filling a gap, it feels younger, the fashion has a capital F for fun, it’s not as serious as the others might be. You just have to find enough to make it feel distinctive,” he added.
Next In Fashion, Baking Squad and The Final Table were all for Netflix. But Ashbrook thinks that all of these shows could also have been made for linear networks. “Even more so now than four years ago, I think they could all live on a network. Netflix have found that they can bring people into those bigger, broader, co-viewing entertainment shows, but it’s not that different… to what the next version will be on NBC or ABC,” he said.
The Old School is now looking to build on its fashion and cooking credentials – it has a couple of other food shows in the works including one involving takeout – in other areas of entertainment. Ashbrook says they are working on new gameshow ideas as well as an adventure series.
“That looks like a competition series that isn’t necessarily on a stage. Just look at locations, there is a reason that it’s season 556 of The Amazing Race,” he joked.
But focus is also important; don’t expect The Old School to move into true-crime, docu-soaps or podcasting. “Focus, for us, is a word to embrace rather than be embarrassed about. If you’re a truly independent company like we are, we can’t afford the distractions. If we take our eye off the ball in that way, there’s only us, there’s no bigger studio padding that affords us the playtime to do that.”
Talking of studios, The Old School partnered with Warner Bros. Unscripted Television and Warner Horizon on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses, fronted by Mirren, which was a big hit for TBS and Cartoon Network.
There’s more and more unscripted shows being made out of big-ticket intellectual property, from HBO Max’s Finding Magic Mike to Netflix’s Squid Game reality series and reboots of classic quiz shows such as ABC’s The Celebrity Dating Game.
Is The Old School looking at this avenue? “It’s funny you say that, because we just had a development meeting, where we were talking about how many places are currently trying to develop The Last Of Us as a games,” he said. “We’re in a good place [in the unscripted industry] because it doesn’t have to be exactly known IP, like a Star Wars quiz show, but people just want big, broad shows. There are lots of unscripted producers that are going to find IP and that’s a that’s a valid path that may well work but we’re pretty small so I’m not going to spend six months sending people off to make IP deals.”
Even the biggest non-scripted hits cost much less to make than scripted series and given the cost conscious nature of the TV and film world right now, this presents more opportunities for alternative producers, particularly as the scripted world may be facing a writers strike over the next few months.
But costs may come down, Ashbrook admits. “Someone might have paid $1M four years for an episode, but you might now need to find a way of making that for $800,000. But just to be clear, if you were making a car for $20,00, you’re probably now being asked to make it for $16,000, that’s the state of the economy and I don’t think is reflective on the [TV] business. Honestly, we never sit at the whiteboard and start a show with a price point, we start with something we’re going to get excited about,” he adds.
If The Old School continues to deliver entertainment hits, there’s a clear chance that it will also be viewed as an M&A option, as non-scripted producers continue to get snapped up by the likes of Sony and Fremantle.
Would Ashbrook consider becoming part of a bigger group? “I just naively like making shows, Every year, we’re building up the slate, building up relationships and it’s only been four years and we’ve unleashed two or three returning brands. I don’t see the big studios as Darth Vader but for now, why wouldn’t I continue doing what we’re doing. Ask me in two or three years,” he said. “We set this up by accident, which therefore kind of tells you there was no strategy to make $50B and buy Manchester City FC.”
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