Brits fall for formats

Shows like 'Brother,' 'Survivor' have opened reality floodgates

LONDON – It came, they saw, it conquered.

Reality formats have long been a staple of U.K. television, but it took Channel 4’s “Big Brother” to prove the power of the program formula. Over a two-month run, ending in mid-September, “Brother” commanded ratings in the low to high 30s. (C4’s average annual viewing share is roughly 10%.)

Not surprisingly, the floodgates have opened. Sources say C4 is already ordering another series of “Brother.”

And ITV, Britain’s biggest commercial web, has all but signed off on buying the “Survivor” format from U.K. distributor Castaway. ITV will likely air its version of the show next fall. Ironically, this U.K.-conceived format has been around for years. It took the ratings windfall that accompanied “Brother,” coupled with the success of “Survivor” in the U.S., to get ITV to commit.

Meanwhile, Channel 5 has started airing “Jailbreak,” in which 10 contestants attempt to escape from a mock prison. Clues are provided by TV and Internet viewers, and the first escapee gets £100,000 ($150,000).

Not content to rest on its laurels, C4 has produced the Christmas special “Lost.” This entails nine contestants, divided into three teams of three, making their way by hook and by crook from a starting point in northern Russia to Trafalgar Square in London. The first to arrive wins $15,000.

And the hunt is on for the next big thing, with both June Dromgoole, C4’s programming buyer, and Jeff Ford, C5’s buyer, noting they’ll be keeping an eye out for new ideas at the intl. TV markets.

“There’s been a huge revival in the reality format,” says Dromgoole. “If we come across a show that we think is interesting, we pass on the information to our colleagues.”

But audiences are nothing if not fickle, and how long viewers will remain glued to their sets is an open question.

“Time will show us how sustainable this will be,” admits Peter van den Bussche, director of sales for Endemol Entertainment U.K., the Brit subsid of Dutch TV producer Endemol, where “Brother” began.

But what could help keep the ball rolling is broadband. “Everything goes in cycles, but this love affair with the format has been timely because you can now exploit it beyond traditional broadcast,” says Marcus Plantin, head of programming for ITV station London Weekend Television.

“Interactivity will make for so many new ideas,” adds Van den Bussche. “The challenge for us is to use the technology.”

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