Beware the Polish format plumber

You've probably heard of the Polish plumber, that mythical figure many are afraid will invade Western Europe and steal jobs from its workers. What if he's not a plumber after all? What if he's a producer and we're finally seeing him at work in the tv world?
January 1, 2006

You’ve probably heard of the Polish plumber, that mythical figure many are afraid will invade Western Europe and steal jobs from its workers. What if he’s not a plumber after all? What if he’s a producer and we’re finally seeing him at work in the TV world?

For decades, traditional international format suppliers have hailed from the UK or the US. Indeed, the UK is the world’s biggest net exporter of entertainment formats. By contrast, some advanced countries have never sold a format beyond their borders. Take Germany, for example. Why is the biggest TV market in Europe merely an importer of formats?

Some German TV professionals blame a lack of confidence and culture. German broadcasters, I’m told, are only looking for foreign formats. ‘It’s much more difficult to sell a format invented here,’ a German producer tells me, adding, ‘We have even considered making a deal with a UK company so we can pretend our formats are British in origin. It would be much easier to sell them then.’

That Germany lacks a tradition for formatted series is an important factor, but British producers also live in a much healthier environment. In general, UK broadcasters are more willing to take risks and often commission shorter series, which leaves room for more commissions. In fact, British broadcasters commission twice as many new shows as German broadcasters. Even if you combine us broadcast outlets and the biggest us cable stations, the British still put twice as many new shows on air. No wonder there are more opportunities in the UK.

However, over the last few years there has been a slow but significant change taking place. New format providers are trying to sell their ideas. They come from places far off the beaten track, like Poland, South America and India, and they are knocking on doors with clever format ideas – ideas with a local feel and twist, but also international appeal. In general, I believe there’s a tendency to exaggerate local proclivities. If you take a closer look, people all over the world are much the same. Of course there are differences, but a good laugh is a good laugh, and suspense is suspense. A good story fascinates the same all over the globe.

Sparks’ Polish partner ATM Grupa has licensed its show Cash Battle into New Zealand. Its sister format, Clueless, is licensed in Italy. And in India, Sparks’ partner Optimystix has several clever format ideas that take a different approach, but are still very saleable in the west. I am convinced we will see more from them.

And why shouldn’t Asian-based producers want to develop their own format ideas, just as they have developed other products originally from the west? Likewise, is it possible to hold back the optimism from the Eastern European countries? Even Germany, that slumbering giant, is waking up and exporting entertainment formats for the first time.

So be on the lookout: the Eastern European, Asian and Latin American format plumbers are on the move. After all, who wouldn’t want a piece of the lucrative US$3 billion global format business?

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.