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Europe secure as leader of reality p’gramming

High ratings, low prod'n costs drive format's popularity

LONDON – While 51 million U.S. viewers tuned in to the climax of Planet 24’s reality gameshow “Survivor” on CBS, the British public sat spellbound by Channel 4’s version of the Endemol gamer “Big Brother.”

At the height of the U.K.’s “Big Brother” frenzy, when a contestant dubbed Nasty Nick was ejected from the house, C4 pulled in 7 million viewers (29% share) — a phenomenal performance for a network which usually secures 10%-12% of the TV audience.

The success of the genre is not limited to these two markets.

In the Netherlands, where “Big Brother” originated, the show achieved a 75%-85% share on commercial channel Veronica. Other successes have included Germany (RTL2) and Spain (Tele 5) — where ratings went through the roof. The “Survivor” format, meanwhile, has sold to 23 countries and been produced in seven.

While CBS plans “Survivor II” in the Australian Outback, reality gameshow addicts in the U.K. can look forward to a wave of psycho gameshows after “Big Brother.”

ITV has “Survivor,” and Channel 5 has “The Mole” and “Jailbreak.”

“Every major international network is looking for a reality gameshow that can boost its ratings. They’ve all seen what shows like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Survivor’ are capable of,” GMG Endemol exec Peter van den Bussche says.

With high ratings, low production costs and the ability to drive people onto network Web sites, it is not hard to see the appeal of such programming. Nor is it a surprise that a new wave of gameshows is poised to break.

Aside from “The Mole,” game hybrids such as “Boot Camp,” “Treasure Island” (see sidebar) and French format “Tra La La” — already a hit on Antena3 in Spain as — are all gearing up for launches in more territories.

Malcolm Heyworth, managing director of Chatsworth Television, pioneered the non-traditional gameshow by creating “The Crystal Maze” out of the “Fort Boyard” format He believes TV has found its raison d’etre in shows like “Big Brother.”

“TV is extremely well suited to the study of life and people,” he says. “I can understand why a broadcaster would prefer to air these shows than expensive dramas which aren’t guaranteed to get better ratings.”

With reality gameshows in ascendancy, a key question is what happens to scheduling staples like sitcoms and dramas?

This summer, while “Big Brother” took the eyes in the U.K., the BBC’s top-rating sitcoms were repeats of “Fawlty Towers” and “Porridge” — both made in the 1970s. It has been some time since the BBC could claim to have had a comedy smash — despite considerable investment in the genre and the occasional critically acclaimed title.

Sitcoms face a number of difficulties. Not only are they expensive to produce and notoriously slow to mature, most do not travel well internationally as completed shows or formats.

Warner Bros’ hit “Friends” is still regarded in Europe as a premium property capable of sustaining primetime audiences. But in most territories, imported scripted comedy has been on the wane in recent years (unless you count the likes of “South Park,” “Rugrats” and “The Simpsons,” which tend to play outside peaktime).

Docusoap successes

Furthermore, the comedy half-hour has been outgunned by low-cost factual and entertainment shows. While the U.S. got into shockumentaries, Northern Europe lapped up docusoaps. At the same time, makeover shows such as GMG Endemol’s “Changing Rooms” and “Groundforce” provided cheap but effective peaktime fare.

The rise of reality-entertainment hybrids also has coincided with a lack of obvious successors to “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” This has not killed off the desire for good comedy, but it has made it less of a priority for Euro commercial networks.

In this context, it is no surprise that leading producers like U.K.-based Tiger Aspect have diversified into factual entertainment to avoid over-reliance on this tricky genre.

Of course, there are successes. Last year, Carsey-Werner’s Fox hit “That ’70s Show” sold to CanWest in Canada, Germany’s RTL, Australia’s Seven Network and RTE in Ireland. This fall, it debuted on Britain’s Channel 5.

Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide has secured a deal for the “Fawlty Towers” format in Germany and is seeking routes into the U.S. for scripted comedy and drama formats via GB Prods., its L.A.-based joint venture with Granada.

Granada itself got comedy drama “Cold Feet” away in the U.S. last year, but it was promptly yanked from the schedule.

Don Taffner Jr., VP of DLT Entertainment, has also been working with Anglo-American writing teams in a bid to adapt scripted comedy for the U.S. — notably on the BBC’s “Why Did We Have Them?”

Although many countries produce their own low-cost, long-running comedies, the development of high-budget scripted comedy that can travel is increasingly the preserve of U.S. studios, which can justify the cost of quality writing teams, specialist networks (such as Comedy Central) and license fee-funded public broadcasters obliged to provide a diverse programming mix in their home territories. Right now, it would take a brave commissioning or acquisition exec at a commercial network to eschew reality in favor of comedy.

Comedy formats

Meanwhile, the rise of reality-entertainment shows has been a boon for the traditional quiz or panel format. After major success for ITV in the U.K. and the ABC Network, Celador’s schedule-busting “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is now performing well on French market-leader TF1. It has also spawned numerous imitations.

Other genres kicking

Despite being overshadowed by reality gameshows, the likes of Action Time, LWT, Pearson and the BBC all report that traditional entertainment shows are doing well.

Action Time joint managing director Trish Kinane, who distributes “Survivor,” says the traditional side of Action Time’s business is booming.

LWT’s director of programs Marcus Plantin agrees. “Our classic rewards shows, like ‘Win Your Weight in Gold,’ are still very popular with international networks.”

On the whole, drama is not as vulnerable to the rise of factual entertainment as sitcom. The TV movie is still a staple acquisition across Europe for use in 9 p.m. slots.

However, miniseries or shortrun dramas are finding it harder to justify their slots as other genres learn to provide promotable scheduling events.

The spiralling cost of must-have sport and movie acquisitions, coupled with the success of expensive factual set-pieces like the BBC-Discovery’s “Walking With Dinosaurs,” has put drama budgets under scrutiny. This partly explains the drive among U.S. producers to co-produce much more drama on the terms of European networks.

While public broadcasters like the BBC can keep making expensive dramas which don’t rate (such as “Gormenghast”), commercial channels like ITV are spending more on soaps.

ITV director of programs David Liddiment recently explained a £20 million investment in new soaps by saying “In a multi-channel age, the soaps’ ability to create appointments to view will be even more crucial.”

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