What to know when taking programming across the pond

Unscripted formats from the UK are finding homes on American TV, but a few U.S. producers are making inroads across the pond. Realscreen talks to producers from both territories about making content connect with new markets. (Pictured: The People's Couch)
October 30, 2014

Now more than ever, UK producers are finding homes on American television for their unscripted formats. But a few U.S. producers are starting to make inroads across the pond with adaptations of their series. What do producers from both territories need to know about how to make their content connect with new markets?

When chef Gordon Ramsay came to America for the U.S. adaptation of Kitchen Nightmares, he started shouting a little louder than he did in the UK. It’s not that American audiences weren’t listening – the series ran for seven seasons Stateside, after all, only ending this past summer – it’s that they expected a bigger performance.

Ramsay’s showmanship – and lung capacity – have made him one of the best known UK imports, but the variations between the American and British series reflect what is quickly becoming apparent to U.S. and UK producers looking to cross over into each other’s territories: more than an ocean separates these markets when it comes to reality programming, and if a show is to succeed, it must cater to specific cultural sensibilities and find its place within a larger context.

“The Brits and Americans are so similar in so many ways, and so culturally different in how they view television programming, that it’s a slippery slope,” says Brent Montgomery, CEO of Leftfield Entertainment, one of the few U.S. production companies to have exported a show – Pawn Stars – to the UK. “In general, British audiences have a stronger appetite to let content breathe and be less in your face.”

Pawn Stars UK kicked off its second season on History in the UK in September, but it’s the exception to a trend that sees more shows crossing over from the UK to the U.S. than the other way around.

It’s not that U.S. formats aren’t strong enough to travel overseas, but rather that U.S. producers aren’t as incentivized to sell abroad because, unlike their UK counterparts who can exploit their IP via the terms of Trade agreement, most of them don’t legally own the formats. Plus, the sheer size of the U.S. TV market makes having rights to a hit series more valuable within the country than outside of it.

But that hasn’t stopped American producers from looking elsewhere for a hit format to adapt, and the last decade has seen iconic shows such as Dancing with the Stars, What Not to Wear and, of course, American Idol originating from UK formats.

Eli Holzman is president of All3Media America, and his team recently debuted The People’s Couch (pictured) on NBCU cable net Bravo in the U.S. – an adaptation of the Channel 4/Studio Lambert-produced smash Gogglebox, in which people are filmed watching television in their homes.

“I was very skeptical about the show in general and skeptical that it would work anywhere – including the U.S. – but that was only until I’d seen a bit of the footage and then thought, ‘Wow, it’s amazing,’” admits Holzman. But The People’s Couch needed some reupholstering before it had a chance of working in the United States.

Showrunner Aliyah Silverstein points out that Americans respond to “bigger laughs delivered more frequently” and a faster pace, meaning that while the UK show spends about seven minutes on each featured program, the U.S. version only allots roughly four minutes. In addition, British producers use voiceover to advance the plot, while Silverstein’s team relies on editing and the household’s commentary to move their show along.

But despite the alterations, Holzman says it’s imperative to maintain the spirit of an import.

“It’s always important to understand what the key ingredients are that are making a format work and then to be vigilant and make sure they’re preserved,” says Holzman. “What Gogglebox does so perfectly – and what we knew we needed to capture – was that you really feel like you’re in the living room of these households. For both series the point is you’re trying to capture this communal viewing experience.”

He admits that the risks of pitching such an unusual show were tempered by its UK success.

“What is so great about imports is that you don’t even know there’s an American taste for them until you see it be a hit someplace else, and then there’s the opportunity to take the chance with a U.S. programmer,” explains Holzman. “Something like Dancing with the Stars we may never have seen on American television had it not been a hit overseas. American programmers never would have taken that risk.”

But why are the Brits – and not Americans – the ones taking those risks? Holzman points out that charters for broadcasters such as Channel 4 and the BBC mandate experimentation in programming. As a result, UK broadcasters are quicker to commission new ideas from paper, creating the optimal landscape for hatching new formats.

“[U.S. nets] prefer to license rights to pre-existing foreign shows where they see a ratings track record and tape of the episodes themselves,” he says.

One such UK show is the BBC’s popular driving series Top Gear, which made its way to the U.S. in 2006 as a pilot for NBC. Though the broadcaster didn’t pick up the U.S. adaptation, it eventually found its way to History in 2010.

Jane Tranter, head of BBC Worldwide Productions, was integral in bringing Top Gear to America and calls herself a “human bridge across the Atlantic.”

She describes her job as taking a British piece, understanding its concept and how it works, and finding the right people in the U.S. who can translate it to an American audience without “wimping out on all the reasons it was successful in the UK in the first place.”

But the exec warns that context is paramount in negotiating a home for a foreign show. “What is zeitgeist-y and current in the UK isn’t necessarily what’s zeitgeist-y and current in the U.S., so you have to be very culturally aware to ensure your piece is landing in a place where people are going to be interested,” says Tranter.

The exec says there also needs to be a good reason for crossing over, and it must always fill a void in the reality landscape. Tranter provides the example of The X Factor, which has had vastly different experiences in the U.S. and UK.

“By the time X Factor launched in the U.S.,” she says, “the audience already had Idol and they already had The Voice coming up, snapping at its heels.”

But despite the pitfalls of crossing over, with joint ventures and multinational indies increasingly connecting the U.S. to the UK, a predominantly one-way trajectory of content from the UK to the U.S. could be changing in the future.

Tom Forman, CEO of U.S. prodco Relativity Television, believes such changes should be a serious objective among American producers.

The exec is developing a U.S. adaptation for WE tv of Channel 4′s social experiment series Sex Box, in which couples have sex in a soundproof box and then discuss their experience afterwards.

“We’re always thinking about the show first, then our U.S. broadcast and cable partners, and we’re also thinking how that show will sell in the international market and having to design something we can sell overseas both as tape and format,” says Forman.

In a similar fashion, Montgomery says launching Pawn Stars UK was part of Leftfield’s goal to become a larger global player – an objective that led to a US$360 million deal with ITV in May, in which the UK broadcaster acquired 80% of the prodco.

“When we go to MIP and Realscreen London, people know our shows not through the American-sold tape but rather through their own territory’s format,” says Montgomery. “We figured the more we’re in those types of conversations on a daily basis with a giant, successful British company, that will give us a better shot than most in figuring out the delicate balance of what works in another territory and what works here, if applied properly,” he adds.

Over in the UK, some producers are also beginning to feel a palpable attachment with the U.S. Nick Bullen, managing director of Love Your Garden producers Spun Gold, says that though the two cultures will always have marked differences, their respective producing styles are beginning to converge.

“So many of the U.S. shows play here that I think it’s beginning to feed itself into the UK market,” says Bullen. “The UK is beginning to look at its reality and how it can up the scripted levels to deliver high-octane performances every single time, rather than just hoping they’ll transpire,” he adds.

The question for some, however, is whether the British market should resemble its American counterpart. Deals such as Discovery Communications and Liberty Global’s purchase of UK superindie All3Media, and 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management’s intended Shine-Endemol merger have led to the foreign ownership of a significant chunk of UK content suppliers – moves that are throwing the IP rights held by UK indies into question.

Now more than ever, there is a greater demand among UK broadcasters such as Channel 4 for access to those program rights – a move, some U.S. execs say, that would be detrimental to the creative landscape in the UK.

“By mimicking their U.S. counterparts and demanding worldwide rights from the British producers,” cautions Holzman, “the UK networks run the grave risk of disincentivizing the very entrepreneurial producers who have done such a brilliant job exporting British television all over the world and creating its value in the first place.”

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