Formats Unpacked: Bargain Hunt
How a format's weirdness helps audiences feel part of a community
I spoke at my first live event in three years this morning. It was organised by Live Union, a creative events agency that you really should use for your live events.
Anyway, I’m telling you this because they’re hosting an event in Buffalo and were looking for a creative format for one of their sessions. Remembering our unpacking of Hot Ones, Jez came up with the idea of introducing wings that get increasingly hotter into the interviews. Well, it is Buffalo after all.
This is exactly why we do this. We unpack formats to find the magic to use in new ways. We do this all the time with clients but I’d love to hear more stories like this from readers. Tell us about anything you’ve taken from Formats Unpacked and used as inspiration. Drop it in the comments or just reply to this email.
OK. Doing the unpacking today is Storythings founder Matt Locke. Matt’s previous unpackings include RSA Shorts, We Are The Champions, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, Grand Designs, and Breaking News Memes.
Over to Matt…
What is it?
A daytime TV series on BBC, normally just before the lunchtime news.
What’s the format?
Every episode, two teams of two people have one hour and a budget of £300 to spend at an antiques market, in which they have to find three ‘bargains’ that will later be auctioned, hopefully for a profit. They also have challenges - to find a specific category of object, and a ‘big spend’ item that has to cost over £75 - and an antiques expert to help them.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
You know how scientists sometimes discover entire ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean, in which evolution has taken off in ways that are never seen anywhere else? Daytime TV formats are a bit like that. They are usually commissioned in huge numbers, on tight budgets, and so the formats end up tuned as finely as a Swiss watch, with all sorts of bizarre complications as a result. Bargain Hunt, which has had nearly 2000 episodes since March 2000, is a great example of this kind of mutant evolution.
On paper, it’s pretty straightforward. Take the curiosity we all have about the values of old objects from Antiques Roadshow, add in pairs of contestants competing against each other in ways that feel familiar from every quiz show, and top it off with a very light dusting of educational content. But over the last 20 years, the format has accrued tiny details, like coral, which make it a far stranger beast than it appears.
I first started watching it in the early 2020 COVID lockdown, accidentally catching the last 5-10 minutes before the 1pm BBC news. So I started in reverse, seeing just the auctions at the end, in which no one ever seemed to make any money. Intrigued, I started turning the TV on earlier and earlier, until I was hooked. By about September 2020 I had to face up to the fact that I was no longer watching Bargain Hunt ironically. I was a Bargain Hunt fan.
Like a coral reef, it’s the bizarre, garish details that seem to serve no function that make it so compelling. The editing and filming style is fast and cheap, but the production team keep tweaking elements, probably to keep themselves interested as much as the viewers, and these quirks get baked into the format itself. So over time, every single format point in the show has been twisted and turned until it catches the light.
The scheduling of daytime TV shows can be erratic, so occasionally you’ll see episodes that were filmed years ago, and can spot the tiny ways the format has changed. For a while, they tried getting some of the researchers on screen, holding a stopwatch to tell the contestants how much time they had left. Then for a couple of series, the ‘bonus buy’ that the experts choose with the money unspent by the contestants wasn’t revealed along with the contestants’ auctions, but saved up for the end, in a kind of face-off to see which pair would win. Sometimes the education bit in the middle is filmed on location at a museum or collection, and sometimes it’s a competition with random antique fair attendees having to guess the purpose of a mystery object.
A bit like a drunken uncle starting a conga line at a wedding, the show has tried to inject primary coloured energy into every single moment, whether this is the reveal of the challenges, introducing the competitors to their experts, or the drama of the final auction. And then, just when you think this Haribo-binge of a show has burnt off all its e-numbers, it ends with the entire cast doing the can-can kick directly to camera as they all shout ‘YES!’ for no apparent reason whatsoever. You don’t see Fiona Bruce doing that on Antiques Roadshow.
Bargain Hunt is, for my money, the best example of how formats develop when you make them a lot, over a very very long time. Iteration, like evolution, shapes a format, but also develops a kind of language that builds loyalty from its audience. When you come late to a format, these details feel bizarre, but as you start to understand them, they are like little badges, helping you feel like you’re part of a community. They might be weird, but they’re your kind of weird.
When I worked as a commissioning editor at Channel 4, I didn’t really understand Daytime TV. In fact, I was probably quite snobby about it. But then I met Helen Warner, who was Head of Daytime at Channel 4, and probably the most genius commissioner I ever worked with. She really understood what it is that makes a format interesting enough to bear endless, daily repetition. Helen was involved in the creation of Come Dine With Me, Coach Trip, Loose Women and Good Morning Britain. These are formats that might not get the critical attention of major dramas or peak-time shows, but they have had a huge cultural impact, even more so because they have to turn up and be entertaining every day of the week, every week of the year.
Daytime TV is a bit like that famous quote about how Ginger Rogers was better than Fred Astaire because she had to do everything he did, but backward and in heels, If you want to really understand how formats work, don’t look at the latest big Netflix drama, watch daytime TV instead - they have to give us ten times as much entertainment, but for a tenth of the budget.
Unlike a lot of daytime formats, Bargain Hunt has mostly resisted the lure of the ‘celebrity special’. But they have done a few, including one for BBC Music Day in 2018 featuring Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and Bez from The Happy Mondays. This was inspired casting, as the only thing that could make Bargain Hunt even weirder is two of the oddest characters from British pop. It’s a glorious 45 minutes of TV, with a scandalous twist at the end.
Bargain Hunt is a cross between two daytime TV staples - the ‘flog the stuff in your attic’ formats and the ‘people like you competing against each other’ quiz shows. There are other antique hunting formats, but Bargain Hunt stands alone, a mutant hybrid of all that is best about daytime TV. And don’t take it from me - Daniel Radcliffe has said that it’s the only reality show he’d ever consider appearing on. But he’d want to appear on the normal version, not a celebrity special. That’s the sign of a true Bargain Hunt fan.
We’re always looking for people to unpack formats we’ve never heard of. As regular readers know, we love niche formats, weird formats, and formats you wouldn’t think are formats but are (such as jokes and card tricks). Tell us about your favourite format in the comments below.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this unpacking please share it far and wide. And if you need help with your content strategy get in touch.
See you all next week.