Risk-taking producers boost U.K. franchises

LONDON — There are few things the Brits can teach the U.S. about the TV biz, but when it comes to global formats, Blighty’s dominance puts the Yanks to shame.

In the first six months of 2006, the U.K. was the preeminent originator of global formats — generating 52% of formats sold compared with the U.S.’ 22% — according to research undertaken by FremantleMedia, the London-based producer/distributor owned by pan-European giant RTL.

Fremantle estimates programs with British roots, such as its own “Idol” franchise, “The X Factor” and “Pokerface,” have occupied pole position in the formats biz for the past three years.

“Britain is definitely the leader,” says FremantleMedia VP of format acquisitions Vasha Wallace. “The U.S. is second and Holland next.”

Given the success of Dutch-based entertainment juggernaut Endemol in the format biz, this latter point is hardly surprising.

But considering the financial advantages enjoyed by Hollywood, the puzzle is why Brits and (relatively speaking) Continental Europeans strike gold more frequently in creating world-beating TV formats.

The booming British indie sector, responsible for programs like “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” (created by RDF Media and Ricochet, respectively), goes some way to explaining the high hit rate of British shows.

“The U.K. has a very vibrant production base, and a lot of that is down to the success of independent producers,” opines BBC Worldwide format topper Colin Jarvis.

Worldwide’s catalog features many shows created by indies, including several formats that Jarvis and his team are pushing at Mip. He singles out “Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway,” made by Fever Media, and “The Baby Borrowers,” produced by Love Prods.

The willingness of British broadcasters to take creative risks and to assemble schedules showcasing a range of genre helps foster a healthy format export biz.

“In the U.K., primetime TV can mean any number of things,” Jarvis suggests. “It could be a shiny floor show like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or a factual show like ‘Wife Swap’ or ‘Who Do You Think You Are?” (a celebrity-driven genealogy skein cooked up by Wall to Wall Television and a big hit for the BBC).

Adds Fremantle’s Wallace: “British TV is responsible for the highest amount of new shows in the world. In the first six months of 2006, the U.K. launched 24 global formats while the U.S. launched nine.”

Competitive pressures continue to mount in the U.K., but there remains the space for webs to experiment and nurture new ideas in what Endemol senior exec director of commercial and creative affairs Mike Morley refers to as “a culture of patience.”

Morley, whose Mip slate features formats spanning gameshows, dating shows, music, comedy and reality, including the intriguingly titled “Fat Men Can’t Hunt,” reckons it’s incorrect to say U.S. producers fail to take as many risks in creating formats as the Brits.

“Financially the U.S. probably takes bigger risks than anywhere else,” Morley says. “In the right circumstances, U.S. broadcasters take enormous risks — but with budgets that big, the shows have to deliver.”

So could the U.S. eventually usurp Blighty’s pole position in the format biz?

“Definitely,” Wallace opines. “So much creativity comes out of the U.S. Think of ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Project Runway.’ But the U.K. is not on the wane. In fact, we’re seeing consistent growth.”

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