In Spring 2016, James Abadi and Sam Pollard (pictured above) teamed up with FremantleMedia to launch Dr Pluto, an indie with an intention to develop concepts across all genres and platforms. “All we are interested in is content that will stimulate people,” said Pollard at the time.
Three years on and they are launching Hey Tracey!, a brand-new quiz show produced for ITV2 which will be aired directly after Love Island. Hosted by Joel Dommett, it sees celebrities play to win cash for members of the public. If they don’t know the answer to Joel’s unusual questions, they can enlist the help of Tracey, a virtual assistant thrown together by some sixth formers in the late 90’s as part of their technology coursework. An antidote to the sterile tones of Siri and Alexa, Tracey can usually be found tucking into a pie or painting her nails.
We caught up with James and Sam to find out how the show has reached our screens, and how they plan to develop their company moving forward…
It doesn’t matter if some people get offended, they can look at puppies on youtube or whatever. Entertainment should be about fun.
Where did the idea for Hey Tracey! come from?
Sam: My kids were messing about with Siri, asking her silly questions, and it occurred to me that it would be funny if rather than subserviently pandering to them in generic Californian English, she said in a broad Northern accent: “alright stop pissing about now, I’m on me period and I’m f*****g knackered. Just call an astrophysicist if yer want to know how the universe began, bloody ‘ell.”
James: I’ve annoyed people for years with funny phone calls, so when Sam came in to the office and told me the idea, I had the best professional morning of my life calling pet shops and Conservative associations asking them what breed of dog the queen has and stuff.
How challenging was it to get the show commissioned?
James: We had a brilliant pilot for another game show in with Channel 4, which we loved, and which they had ummed and aahed about, and eventually turned down. We sent it to Paul Mortimer, and he also said no but was very complimentary about it. He’d told us previously that he loved Release the Hounds*, so I asked him if we could meet up. We had an amazing meeting with him, he shares our sense of fun, and he liked four ideas but Hey Tracey! was his favourite and it happened very quickly after that.
*James and Sam created and produced Release The Hounds together before setting up Dr Pluto)
You have a lot of experience between you, producing and directing for other indies and broadcasters. What made you decide to take the leap and set up on your own?
Sam: Creative autonomy. We wanted to make original shows and believe that newness is what will lead to big successes. It’s a harder way of doing it, because if you’re pitching something that hasn’t been done before you’ve got no evidence that something will work. It’s much more of a leap of faith. That coupled with the fact we were a new indie was probably why it took us a while to break our duck.
Our admiration has grown for anyone who has made a success of keeping an indie going for any sustained period as it is relentlessly challenging and stressful.
You’re a relatively young indie but have backing from Fremantle. How did that partnership come about, and what benefits has it brought?
Sam: Once we’d decided to go it alone we approached a few of the super-indies. Sarah Edwards at Sony introduced us to Rob Clark at Fremantle, and then we met Cecile (Frot-Coutaz), and we got on with both of them. We had the same creative vision. Cecile said “entertainment doesn’t have to be just singing and dancing”, which is something we also believe. They have allowed us to find our feet, there’s no sense of nannying, they’ve backed us and have never put pressure on us. They always said they knew it would come.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a business?
James: Money is always a worry. I personally found it very hard trying to sell shows but not making them, which is what I’ve been doing for 20 years. Sam’s background is development so he was used to the system and the time it takes to get a ‘no’. I think the biggest challenge is to stick to your vision. There have been times when we questioned if we were right, and should we just be pitching shows where A Celebrity Does Something, but it was so rewarding making Hey Tracey! because we loved the show, it wasn’t just a means to an end.
Are there other indies and/or producers you look to as a model for how you’d like to progress?
James: There are producers we admire, and programmes we admire, but we try to be our own people. Certainly our admiration has grown for anyone who has made a success of keeping an indie going for any sustained period as it is relentlessly challenging and stressful.
Sam: I was at 12 Yard when David Young built it up and sold it and that provides a guiding model to an extent, in terms of ideas and formats taking priority and leading to creative and financial success.
You have described running your indie as a 'multi-regional pop-up', what do you mean by that and why have you decided to operate in that way?
James: We have now shut down our London office and are looking to set up a boutique regional HQ. Our intention is to remain a lean outfit and pop-up additional production offices when we need to - in the most appropriate areas. We are both proud Northerners, so can imagine a time when we have a Manchester base too.
It’s great to know you have Pact in your corner.
Are you looking at international opportunities to expand and sell your IP?
James: Yes, absolutely! We have hundreds of formats. Give us a call if you are buying.
What Pact services are most useful to a young indie like yours? And why do you feel it’s important to be a Pact member?
James: We have been lucky enough to take part in a few Pact international missions - to China and Korea, where we made some useful contacts. It’s great to know you have Pact in your corner.
If there was one thing you could change about the industry right now, what would it be?
Sam: We both think it is too serious. Even comedy has to have an underlying point it seems. I have said on many occasions that in a world with hundreds of channels, multiple streaming services, on-demand films, relentless social media, and billions of web pages catering for whatever you want, then you have to really justify why you are taking an hour of someone’s life with your programme. If it can add fun, then that’s a really pure justification. It doesn’t matter if some people get offended, they can look at puppies on youtube or whatever. Entertainment should be about fun.
Hey Tracey! airs on ITV2 at 10:00pm on Monday 17 June and will run for 6 weeks.
Our thanks to James and Sam for answering our questions.