Making formats fly

Does a format need to fly in the U.S. in order to become a global smash? Realscreen spoke with top format producers about how success or failure in the U.S. impacts a format's chances internationally. (Pictured: MasterChef Junior)
October 2, 2014

It used to be the case that if a format flopped in the U.S., it would spell trouble for its chances internationally. But with more territories entering the formats market, producers are weighing their options. How important is it to break America first, and how do you do it?

For many producers, bringing a format to the United States is all about timing. Although it is possible to score strong global sales without an American success story, the importance of retaining intellectual property rights and the plethora of digital platforms are upping the chances for formats to thrive internationally.

Still, the money U.S. networks are able to pour into a production makes the market a strategically important one. If a show is a hit in America, buyers will notice. “It’s really difficult to launch a paper format in the United States,” says Thom Beers, CEO of FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), which produces American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The X Factor. “It’s such a critical market that if you aren’t successful right out the gate, you’re going to have a miserable couple of months.”

In the past year, Keshet International’s interactive singing competition Rising Star and Talpa Media’s social experiment Utopia were snapped up by American broadcasters – ABC and Fox, respectively – in straight-to-series deals, and aired in under a year.

Typically, a network likes to gauge a format’s performance over time: how it rated, who watched it and the kind of buzz it generated. Test driving a format in a smaller market such as the Netherlands, Australia or Israel not only allows producers to work out potential flaws, but provides leverage when negotiating intellectual property rights with rights-hungry U.S. broadcasters.

“If there is a trend now – coming off of a challenging year for international formats – it would be not to rush into production just because a format might have worked in one market,” says Shine America CEO Rich Ross. “They [the networks] would like enough time to develop it appropriately for the local market. Not that I think less formats will be sold at MIPCOM, but I would not be surprised if formats come to air in a longer fashion than they have in the past year.”

In September of 2013, Fox launched the U.S. version of Shine’s MasterChef Junior, in which aspiring pre-teen cooks compete for a US$100,000 prize. Fox saw great success in bringing the Shine format MasterChef to the U.S., undoubtedly aided by having celeb chef Gordon Ramsay star, who is also a judge on Junior.

The original version of Junior aired for five years in the 1990s and was revamped by Shine and the BBC in 2010 – the same year the American version of MasterChef debuted on Fox. Shine shot four seasons before Fox okayed Junior, which averaged 5.1 million total viewers and ranked top in its time slot across key demos during its first season. In April, the series was renewed for a third season, ahead of the season two premiere.

But numbers need context. Ross says networks are becoming savvier when it comes to gauging a format’s ratings. A huge ratings increase for the time slot is meaningless if the slot was low-rated to begin with. Buyers want to know what shows it went up against and how it rated in comparison.

talpa's utopia, a hit in the netherlands, got off to a rocky start in the u.s.

Talpa’s Utopia, a hit in the Netherlands, got off to a rocky start in the U.S.

“The network wants a great show [that works] for them. It doesn’t matter if it works in Sweden or Afghanistan,” says Ross. This fall, all eyes in the unscripted world have been on Fox with the debut of the latest format from Big Brother creator John De Mol‘s Talpa Media. Utopia places 15 cast members in a remote location and asks them to create their own rules, farm their own food and develop their own laws.

Part soap opera, part social experiment, Utopia was on the air in the Netherlands for less than two weeks when newly installed Fox reality chief Simon Andreae flew to Amsterdam and persuaded De Mol to do a deal prior to a planned U.S. pitch tour.

With a significant budget, 126 cameras and 288 hours of footage generated per day, a lot is at stake for both Fox and Talpa. A failure in the U.S. could impact Utopia’s international sales strategy, but producers believe the U.S. version will be less of a blueprint for buyers than the American Big Brother was, for example.

“The U.S. market is very rich in terms of characters, personalities and contradictions,” says Maarten Meijis, managing director for Talpa Global. “I think the Dutch market and a few others are less diverse in a way. Guns, for example, aren’t allowed in Holland, so that’s not even a point of discussion, but it could be in the U.S. market.”

The Fox premiere, up against Big Brother on CBS, brought in 4.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. As of press time, its Tuesday night airings brought a ratings drop from the premiere, but its September 16 episode was up 11% in the 18-49 demo. Fox is airing Utopia twice weekly.

Last year, Israeli broadcaster Keshet sought to reinvigorate the shiny floor competition genre by putting an interactive spin on the live singing contest. Rising Star, which premiered in late August, added unpredictability to the mix by having viewers choose the winners via a downloadable app. The series averaged 1.12 million viewers during its first season run and inspired a sales frenzy at MIPCOM.

Before the fourth episode aired in Israel, distributor Keshet International began announcing straight-to-series deals. The format landed in more than 25 territories, including the United States, where ratings for The Voice and American Idol have dipped and The X Factor has been canceled by Fox.

Would Rising Star’s interactivity excite American audiences? The show premiered on ABC on June 22, attracting 5.2 million total viewers on highly competitive Sunday night. Since then, ratings dropped to 3.14 million by the finale on August 24, according to Nielsen.

Meanwhile, in September, ITV in the UK announced it was axing its planned adaptation of the format, which was set to debut in early 2015.

While citing the innovation of the format in its statement, the company added: “As a commercial broadcaster, we always need to be as confident as possible about the potential ratings of any new program format that we have acquired.”

abc's version of rising star featured ludacris, kesha, brad paisley and josh groban

ABC’s version of Rising Star featured Josh Groban, Brad Paisley, Kesha and Ludacris

The U.S. market is particularly important for Keshet International. Earlier this year, the company created Keshet DCP, a joint venture with Dick Clark Productions, to produce unscripted formats, with a focus on primetime entertainment for the big four nets. But execs insist that an American flop would not devastate Rising Star’s international roll-out.

“From our experience, the U.S. flop or success is becoming less of a factor with international buyers,” maintains Keshet International’s distribution and acquisitions head Keren Shahar. “They are looking at the U.S. but the world is becoming more flat.”

Over the past few years, format producers in Europe have noticed growing interest from buyers elsewhere in the world as more markets get into the game.

By 2013, the UK and U.S. were the top two producers of formats, according to internal research presented by FremantleMedia’s senior VP of global acquisitions and development, Vasha Wallace, during Realscreen West in June. Out of 102 formats adapted globally, 24 formats originating in those respective markets were adapted internationally.

In 2013, the TV Formats in Europe Report, which studied 84 European channels across the 16 territories and 21 distributors, found the value created by the top 100 formats was US$2.9 billion – down 3.3% from 2012, but up from the year prior. The number of hours broadcast was 28,386 in 2013, nearly the same as 2012.

“There’s a much bigger appetite for formats coming from anywhere outside the U.S.,” says Patty Geneste, CEO of Dutch producer Absolutely Independent and chair of industry body, the Format Recognition and Protection Association (FRAPA). “It’s much stronger now because of the bigger importance of IP rights.”

Launching a format in the U.S. is a risk, which is why networks ask for rights. To hang onto those rights, producers will develop and produce a show in a foreign market and then take it to the U.S. Since Nordic World, the commercial arm of TV2 in Norway and TV4 Sweden, bought Absolutely Independent in January, Geneste has focused on attracting indie U.S. producers interested in getting greenlit by a Scandinavian network before chasing a format deal in their home territory.

Still, even if a producer test-drives a format internationally and works out all the kinks, U.S. execs will likely make creative tweaks, which can sometimes impact the essence of a format.

In 2008, FremantleMedia North America developed the reality dating show format Take Me Out but took it overseas, where it debuted on Australia’s Network Ten (as Taken Out) before landing 12 format deals including one with ITV in the UK. Fox picked it up in the U.S. and aired it in 2012. It flopped.

“Here’s the downside,” says FremantleMedia’s Thom Beers. “You still have to get through that creative process. If they [the network] want to change a show that drastically, so that it no longer resembles the show you made elsewhere, your chance of success and survival goes down.”

Still, despite the trends, tricks of timing and ups and downs, the U.S. is such a colossal market that producers cannot avoid it. “If you sell into the U.S. and do the same deal in Hungary, of course we put the same amount of energy into it because we respect every deal, but the numbers are very different,” says Geneste.

  • This article appears in the September/October 2014 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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