Sparks Network president Nicola Söderlund will tell you there’s an invisible divide in Europe when it comes to tastes in formats. It already existed in early 2004 when Sparks – a network of 12 global indie prodcos that give each other first look at formats – launched in Sweden. Söderlund recalls a meeting at the time, during which the Italian creators of a game show called Azzardo (Hazard) excitedly showed it to the rest of Sparks’ members for the first time. Azzardo uses ‘ballerinas’ (as Söderlund describes, ‘pretty girls in bikinis that do short dance numbers and kiss the winner of prizes’), and he laughs recalling the reactions it prompted. ‘You should have seen the faces when the Italians presented the show to the others in the group, because this [style] was not very common in other countries.’
Azzardo originates from Italy, a ballerina-friendly market that’s part of what Söderlund calls the ‘Mediterranean Europe’ television tradition, which also includes Spain, Portugal and Greece. The other region, ‘northern Europe,’ includes the UK, Scandinavia, Germany and Benelux. Since the two regions have such distinct tastes, even though Söderlund says Azzardo is a beautiful show, ‘because of the ballerinas, it’s very difficult to sell into northern Europe.’
Patrick Svensk, CEO of Copenhagen-based Zodiak Group – which has prodcos in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Russia and Poland – has a phrase to combat this type of problem. ‘We say to our development teams in all six of our local countries, ‘Think global, act local,” he says. ‘The greatest format hits are the ones that travel identically anywhere, so they should be thinking in global terms, ‘What makes a great format?”
After analyzing market trends and dissecting the components of well-traveled hits, Svensk has made an observation: ‘There’s a reason that McDonald’s restaurants look the same all over the world, and so goes it for the greatest formats, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Big Brother, for instance. They only adopted one or two percent in each territory and they are on the air in more than 100 countries looking exactly the same.’
To ensure a format keeps uniform across different markets, Söderlund says: stick to the bible. ‘When you transfer the knowledge as a rights holder to local producers, you have to be very strict that they know how the format should be produced.’ He recommends keeping the graphics, set, and overall feel of the show the same. One of Sparks’ members produce a Belgian reality format called Peking Express that’s been sold to France and Germany, and it remains essentially identical in each market. The show has ordinary people traveling from Moscow to Beijing with only two Euros to spend each day. Since the mechanics of the show are well defined – the contestants have to reach certain points at certain times, and complete specific challenges – Söderlund says it’s not a difficult format to produce in different territories.
Zodiak also has several formats that look similar in most markets, including Top Dog and Shopaholics, which Svensk says have sold into a total of almost 20 countries since the last market. Dog is a ‘best in show’ format that tries to sniff out the next canine model to cast in a dog food commercial, while Shopaholics is a competition between four retail-obsessed women. Originally developed in Denmark, Shopaholics has sold into Norway and, more recently, the US.
Although making major changes to localize for each market deviates from Svensk’s McDonald’s philosophy, he acknowledges that formats in the ‘second division’ – the ones that don’t rate as high as the megahit Big Brothers out there – may need more localization. Many of the formats Zodiak sells have been further developed locally, and as Svensk says, ‘A new version that comes out of Italy, say, could actually be better than the version that came out of Denmark,’ and that could be a strength if it leads to the show making it to a second season.
Finding the balance between filling the demands of local broadcasters while keeping your original concept strong is no easy task, admits Söderlund. ‘As a format rights holder, you want to keep your brand intact so it can be recognized everywhere, but that depends very much on the nature of the format: the stronger the mechanics are, and the more formatized it is, the easier it is to keep the brand intact.’ With most game shows, for example, the rights holder can easily tell the broadcasters how the format should look, but if soft elements like a host or local reportage play a large part in the show, there’s a need to be more localized when producing.
So, says Söderlund, when a Spanish format like Comedy Club, originally a one-hour show, was scooped up by an Italian broadcaster, it was time to add another two hours to it for the Italian market, which is accustomed to longer show lengths. Wonder if they added any ballerinas?