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Behind the making of Nine’s ‘human drama’: The Block

The Block has been described by co-creator Julian Cress as the most 'expensive reality show' in the world. But how does it come together? On a trip to Melbourne as a guest of Nine, Mumbrella's Zoe Samios chats with Cress and director of content partnerships - entertainment, Sarah Stewart, about how one of Australia's longest standing reality show reinvents the wheel for both audiences and advertisers.

I’m sitting in a cafe in St Kilda, Melbourne.

If I’m being honest it’s not just any cafe – it’s a McCafe set up for Nine’s new contestants on The Block and it’s also the same building as what Nine calls ‘The Block Shop’, which is sponsored by Suncorp.

In front of me I’ve got a coffee and behind me is a room filled with paintings, couches and other objects which might be useful as home interior.

The McCafe shop opposite The Block

It’s my first glimpse into the world of The Block, one of Australia’s long-standing reality programs. There are only a few television shows on commercial television which have successfully delivered ratings year-on-year and this is one of them.

In its thirteenth season year last year, the show premiered with 1.1m metro viewers, while its finale was the highest since 2014 – the winner announcement attracting 2.5m metro viewers.

Naturally, there’s a few things to take in. One is seeing the likes of host Scotty Cam doing a piece to camera outside the property. The second is the building itself, an old rundown former hotel known as The Gatwick.

But today isn’t just about looking inside this year’s ‘Block’, it’s also about seeing how brands can fit into it. Why?

As co-creator and producer Julian Cress explains, the show would not survive without them.

Co-creator Cress says the show wouldn’t exist without its sponsors

I’m preparing to meet Nine’s director of content partnerships for entertainment, Sarah Stewart and Cress. It’s March, and we are only in the early weeks of The Block production but there’s so much that has already been done. Before I sit down with Stewart and Cress, I’m taken into a room at the bottom of the building which has a floor plan which shows which apartments are for which contestants.

As we walk around The Block, I’m surprised by how little of contestants I see. Each duo has a group of tradesmen working for them, who are much more apparent.

This year, 45,000 couples applied for the show. Out of the contestants I am introduced to, Norm from Queensland and Hayden from NSW, I can quickly get a feel for the sorts of personalities that work on a reality program like this.

This year’s contestants

It’s time for me to look at some of the rooms. The bathrooms are already done, as are the guest bedrooms, and now they are working on the main bedroom this week. It’s Friday, which means the contestants have two days until their next deadline.

My attention turns to the lack of big, in-your-face cameras. Then, the tour slowly becomes a game of spot the Go-Pro cameras on the walls. Seeing the cramped bedrooms filled with three months of clothes is enough to give you the idea of how full on the show must be.

But no sleep and impossible deadlines is all part of the magic of the show, Cress tells me.

“We took that simple idea for a renovation reality show but we always said we’re going to produce a human drama. And we never lose sight of the fact that we’re not just a reno[vation] show, we are a soap opera,” Cress says.

Cress has been working on the show with co-creator David Barbour since The Block began, constantly reinventing the wheel so TV viewers and advertisers don’t tire of a seemingly simple format. He has got a lot of different jobs – managing the day to day drama and panic. The biggest challenge, he says, is ensuring contestants don’t lose their minds while achieving their goals. It’s a delicate balance, he admits.

“The most challenging thing would be knowing how big a challenge for the contestants and knowing that it’s almost impossible what we are asking them to do, balancing that with our duty of care to these people to get them through to the end successfully and not have anyone actually lose their mind.

“All of these people in that building will get to the absolute edge of insanity at some point over these three months because they’re really competitive people, they all want to win and they all know that only one of them will.”

Cress is also heavily involved in discussions with the sponsors for The Block, working closely with Stewart, who is with me for the morning as well. This year there are 13 major partners. Among those are Mitre 10 – returning for the 11th season, as well as partners Domain, McCafe, Volkswagen, Youfoodz and Bluescope Steel. New partners include Amazon, Suncorp, The a2 Milk Company, Canstar, Clipsal and Blueprint Homes.

Suncorp and Nine created The Block Shop, an extension of the digital website this year

There’s also the major suppliers – Reece, Kennard’s Hire, Freedom Furniture and Freedom Kitchens, Carpet Court, Beacon Lighting, Beaumont Tiles, Samsung, Forty Winks, Kinsman, Steel Blue Boots and Apple.

Cress, who describes the show he created as his “baby”, says The Block was formatted in a which in which a number of partners could come on board. For him and the rest of The Block team, it helps fund the “richest reality show” in the world.

“I would speak to all of the sponsors on a weekly basis. I would speak to most on a daily basis,” he tells me.

“They’ll come on site – we get that we are not buying buildings in St Kilda without the support of brands. Without our sponsors there’s no way that we’re writing a cheque to buy a big building in the middle of Fitzroy St. They are making the show. They are so important,” he says.

“From the beginning of The Block idea back in 2002, it was very much designed as a show that could integrate sponsors because we knew that from the outset, it was going to be an expensive thing to make.

Sponsorships like Volkswagen create extensions to the storyline

Stewart, who works closely with Cress on a day-to-day basis, tells me the best partnerships are actually with those brands which adapt to the day to day drama of the show.

“We will work really closely with Julian to find a really mutually beneficial outcomes, but as well as that, naturally within the format of the show, things change constantly and Julian will quickly pick up the phone to one of us and say ‘guys we’ve seen an opportunity arise’,” she says.

“Jules is really good at that because he’s been doing it for so many years. He works really closely with all of our brands.”

Nine’s director of commercial partnerships Sarah Stewart

Cress also works on the creative concepts for each sponsor, something he believes a lot of people wouldn’t know he does. He says each activation is about creating a deeper level of integration, making reference to new sponsor Suncorp as an example.

“The ways of integrating them [Suncorp] into the show are limited to the money that the contestants get to spend which is fine,” he says.

“But they want more than that, they don’t just want to be the people with the money giving it to the contestants, they came to us and said we don’t really want to be seen like a bank’.

“We said ‘what about The Block Shop? What about giving the contestants an opportunity to walk across the sheet to get some of the things they need to finish their rooms?’ And they said ‘yes, we’d love to do that.’

When I query whether integration like this actually pays off for the sponsors, Stewart tells me: “It absolutely does.”

“Everyone has a different idea of what success looks like for them so we still have clients who are just buying a traditional sponsorship that for them is just about audience – they literally want spots and dots within it and this is the program to do it.”

What’s different to some of Nine’s other shows is some brands work as an extension of the plot. Stewart talks specifically about Volkswagen, and how the brand helps tell the story: “Auto is not just about having that beautiful shot of the car and being able to have the money hidden in the glove box or the boot to show off the internals of the car.

“The vehicle in the series actually becomes an extension of the series because it actually takes them away from The Block and we get that different storyline form then as we are travelling to Mitre 10.”

Outside of the obvious sponsors here in the cafe, Nine has also established a number of digital partnerships.

“It’s really not just about what we are doing in linear TV piece. It’s the digital executions, the social pieces, what we are doing in McCafes. Domain is really an extension of our content because they provide a platform for us,” Stewart explains.

“Not only do they provide a platform for us, but they actually bring someone into the show for us. They give us an expert in Alice Stolz and Alice’s role is really to come in and give advice to the couples and give them her opinion on what their renovation for that week is going to do to the property.”

But if last season is anything to go by, fights and threats to leave The Block are common. So how do Stewart and Cress manage this?

The Block contestants Jason and Sarah were threatened with being kicked off the show last year

Stewart says it doesn’t tend to be an issue for sponsors given it’s a family friendly show.

“There’s absolutely conflict within it given the heightened emotions of renovating a house but there’s a really nice balance between that and the feel good piece that it has, the family that it brings together,” she says.

“Everybody is comfortable that there is a really nice balance between those things and I don’t think there is a brand safety issue.”

Outside of sponsorship duties, Cress’ job is to manage the drama. He says his job is to simply “put it to air”.

“That’s the whole design of the show,” he says.

“Yes, the challenge that we set for them is too hard. It’s not actually possible to do what we’re asking of them in the timeframe we’re looking at. We also didn’t give them enough money to complete the apartments in the timeframes that we’re asking them to do it which means that they have to win rooms to complete the apartment to the standard they want to.

“It means they have to win challenges. That extra $5k or extra $10k is the only way they’ll finish. If anybody goes through the whole competition and doesn’t win a challenge and doesn’t win a room, they’re screwed.”

For Cress, The Block is so much more than just the partnerships and that’s evident for the way he sits with his ‘Block’ cap and coffee relaxing in McCafe.

“David and I are protective of [The Block] like it’s our child, because it kind of is. But we also have a very deep understanding, because we created the show, we have a really deep understanding of what The Block is as a brand. It allows us to work maybe more successfully with sales, to make sure that we’ve got the right sponsors integrated it the right way so that everybody can win.”

Julian Cress will be speaking at MSIX later this year. Don’t miss out on a ticket.

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