Lifestyle formats: lost in translation

It's clear why lifestyle producers ache to crack large markets - money is a great motivator -
January 1, 2007

It’s clear why lifestyle producers ache to crack large markets – money is a great motivator – but the real question is: why do formats become hits in one market and flop in the next? It’s especially puzzling when it comes to US and UK formats. Why is it that British ideas often float easily to the us, while American efforts end up floundering somewhere in the Atlantic?

It may have something to do with the emigration of UK talent to the US. For example, it was certainly a help for British producers when Jana Bennett – who had been director of programs for the former BBC Production division – stepped in as GM of Discovery Communications roughly seven years ago, or so says Nick Catliff, MD of London-based indie prodco Lion Television. Bennett played a major role in the strategic development of Discovery’s channels in North America during her time there, especially at TLC. ‘She went there just when [certain lifestyle shows] were really taking off in the UK,’ Catliff notes, ‘where she picked them up and ran with them there. That was really serendipitous, but it worked, and tlc really had a huge boom on the back of those shows.’ Indeed, Bennett reportedly built reach and share at TLC from 73 million to 83 million US homes.

But it takes more than one transplanted exec to explain why British lifestyle formats shine in the US – it also often involves improving production values. As an example, Catliff cites a home burglary show Lion did called To Catch A Thief that aired on the BBC in 2003, and now does the US version of for Discovery (renamed It Takes A Thief). ‘The production values of the American show are much higher,’ says Catliff. ‘[Discovery is] paying more and they expect a lot more in terms of production value, certainly.’ (As an aside, re-titling shows is a common way of targeting. Christian Drobnyk, SVP of programming and development for TLC, where the British Scrap Heap Challenge was changed to Junk Yard Wars, says ‘Even little tricks like changing a title can work wonders towards reorienting your audience to what they’re being served.’)

It’s not all about the production values, however. The audiences also have values of their own. Comparing ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover with the BBC’s Changing Rooms, Catliff notes that Extreme removes the irony and makes the show a straightforward, huge production value, feel-good show. He sees the show as partly makeover, partly competition, with ‘a certain comic reveal, as in ‘What on earth have my neighbors done to my house?’ They’ve stripped out what I argue are the most interesting parts of the show’s DNA, and replaced them with this huge sense of ‘We can make life good for you.” While Extreme‘s set-up is more emotionally engaging than a lot of the British shows, Catliff says, ‘That doesn’t have repeatability, and you can’t do that every week forever – playing the same trick.’

While the more rigid formats can have an exceptional run, Drobnyk finds they can be short lived: ‘They become predictable in terms of the beats.’ Even with TLC’s own ‘beloved Trading Spaces,’ the swap-homes-and-redecorate-with-$1,000 show, Drobnyk says ‘we’re needing to serve up that – but also formats that have more.’

Tooting the UK’s horn, creative director Harry Bell of Northern Ireland and Scotland-based prodco Tern Television says add-ons are something the Brits have done well over recent years. ‘The British have been quite creative in using reality and lifestyle programs in a slightly different way so that there’s a fresher approach on how to access material,’ he says. ‘And in the commercial world, that’s why this huge trend in lifestyle or constructed reality has worked so well – because we’ve put much more entertainment into it.’

Tony Humphreys, MD of London-based Talent TV, an entertainment producer that’s now adopted a more international approach and is trying to create its own material with the US market, says it’s the Europeans in general, not just the Brits, that have taken lifestyle programming to the next level by formatting it in a repeatable fashion ‘that has an additional edge to the content.’ Using Talkback Thames’ Property Ladder as an example, Humphreys says the challenge element where the subjects are given a set amount of money to start with and are then expected to trade up each time (with pointers along the way) helps the audience understand the process and keeps it interesting each week.

Bell stresses another difference in UK and US programming: commercial breaks. Because of the large us multi-channel landscape, he says, ‘US programs have to reiterate the proposition all the time… to survive there your program has to be modular. It has to be broken up into neat little packages.’ The UK’s channel universe isn’t as large, so its programs can have a character arc that goes over a one-hour show ‘and we don’t have to keep saying ‘This show is about two warring families: Couple B and Couple C. We put them together and see what happens.’ In North America, you do that all the time. An audience here would just get bored to hell – they’ll just say, ‘You are treating me like an idiot.” Bell’s mantra is ‘This audience is vastly sophisticated, they’re intelligent, they’re no idiots.’

He also believes producers should trust that the audience wants to be taken on a journey by the story itself, not led through by ‘testimonial television.’ He recalls that I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here had a hard go in the States. After a successful run on ITV, it apparently struggled in the US because North America has a tendency to ‘beef up actuality’ – meaning action as it happens, when contestants sit around and talk, with their dialog telling the story. ‘What Celebrity does well,’ says Bell, ‘is it lets the people in the jungle camp slag each other off and then it will cut away to the two presenters commenting.’ But in the us, he notes there’s a tendency to have contestants speak for 20 or 30 seconds, and then it will cut away to a static head shot of them commenting on what they’ve just been talking about in real time, à la Next Top Model.

Another format that worked very well in the UK but didn’t go over as well in the US, says TLC’s Drobnyk, is How Clean is Your House. He doesn’t think viewers expected to see that kind of non-fiction format on the Lifetime network, whereas if they had caught it on TLC, he says it might have been a big hit for him. This may provide another clue as to why certain lifestyle shows don’t make it big in the US. ‘With the advent of reality TV in the last 10 years, a lot of channels whose remits were never really in the non-fiction space to begin with have become buyers in the international format market and just haven’t succeeded by virtue of what their audiences expect from them,’ says Drobnyk.

One thing British audiences have long come to expect from the US is completed drama and comedy series, says Lion’s Catliff. This helps explain why it’s no easy feat for us producers to break into the UK market. With a tradition in exporting finished programs, the mindset in the us has been to make a show and sell it – not customize it for different markets, he furthers.

And why bother tinkering with an existing show when there are a wealth of other possibilities? Over the last 10 years, the UK has generated so many lifestyle shows that, ‘In a way,’ says Catliff, ‘if you’ve got RDF and Endemol and all the British companies churning out those ideas, why would you go shopping for them in America?’ Nicola Söderlund, president of Sweden’s Sparks Network, a group of 13 global indies that give each other first-look at formats, agrees that the UK has traditionally not been very interested in formats from abroad. ‘It’s difficult to sell into the uk because they are the most successful format writers in the world. Also the standard of UK television is very high, so maybe they feel they know their business better than the rest of the world.’

Catliff puts it bluntly: ‘[Brits] look at something that feels too American, other than drama or comedy, and we instantly don’t like it. It’s interesting that you’d never have an American narrator on a documentary shown in the UK – you’d always strip it out.’ He offers: ‘I think it might be because of snobbery, for a start… We want stuff that feels British, I suppose.’

How on earth are producers supposed to fill that order if they’re trying to create borderless ideas? Catliff offers this: ‘What makes a format work on both sides [of the Atlantic] is it’s got a great story, great characters you learn to love or hate, and great narrative – a story with a beginning and an end… and an overall arc which works brilliantly. It’s not rocket science to describe why it’s so good, it’s just rather hard to think of the next one.’ With RDF’s Wife Swap, he says, even though people say the UK is class-obsessed, ‘In the end, the show’s about juxtaposing people who are purely going to clash with each other. In the UK that may often be about class, about putting working-class people among middle-class people, but in the States there are similar rivalries.’ The magic of Wife Swap, says Catliff, is choosing opposite characters.

What Not to Wear, one of TLC’s lifestyle hits, brims with basic fashion tips, which Drobnyk considers the show’s core subject matter, which can ‘travel in both markets, specifically the US and the UK, and when you localize the format you can make sure you’re serving up something that’s very relatable to your audience.’

Talent’s Humphreys admits that some programs do work best when catered to their own culture, and uses 30 Days, produced with members of Actual Reality Pictures and Reveille and executive produced by Morgan Spurlock, as an example. If this social experiment and lifestyle-swapping show is to transfer well as a format, Humphreys believes topics of specific concern to the US – like an episode featuring illegal Mexican immigrants – would have to be changed to address similar issues more relevant to the broadcast country.

On the flip side, Chris Grant, SVP of international distribution and creative affairs at Reveille, notes that when his company looks at formats to buy to make domestically (they’ve already done so with The Office and Ugly Betty), they’re looking for ‘completely relatable concepts that transcend borders. It’s all about finding those core principles that make a show uniquely able to travel.’

The theme of globalization has also started to make its way across the industry. ‘You cannot only be interested in formats from one country anymore,’ says Söderlund. ‘It’s all international: you can bring a format from Japan or Poland and sell it, as long as it’s a good format with a good track record. You can’t afford to be local because then you miss good ideas from other places.’ If more of the makers and buyers of lifestyle would subscribe to this notion, fewer format ideas will sink on their journey across the Atlantic.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.