Fremantle hunts for fresh comedy

Execs scour Edinburgh for new talent

LONDON While most of the U.K.’s TV execs were in Scotland for the Edinburgh Intl. TV Festival that wrapped Aug. 24, FremantleMedia’s Shane Murphy was busy scouring the city’s comedy venues for the next Ricky Gervais.

FremantleMedia, better known for its unscripted formats, is ramping up its comedy slate. Just last week the producer sold laffer “The IT Crowd,” about a bunch of geeky IT help-desk workers, to U.S. paybox IFC.

“We’re up here with a check book looking for talent to spend money on,” says Murphy, who is making the most of the fact that the TV fest is part of the monthlong Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Event is touted as the world’s largest arts fest and also has a reputation as the leading annual showcase for Blighty’s comic talent.

“One of the things we want to do is spot specific ideas or shows, whether it’s just one sketch out of an hour, or a character that a performer is working on,” says Murphy, head of acquisitions and development at FremantleMedia Enterprises. The strategy is part of a broader push to build on Fremantle’s extensive catalog of classic British laffers, which includes “The Benny Hill Show.” It already has deals with leading comedy producers including Rough Cut, the company launched by “The Office” producer Ash Atalla.

Fueling the comedy drive has been the growing demand for Brit shows, both internationally and on DVD. “The IT Crowd,” for example, which aired on Channel 4, has sold to 26 territories.

It’s a two-way street with the company looking to the U.S. to bolster its catalog. It recently picked up international rights to Comedy Central’s “Reality Bites Back,” produced by 3Ball Prods.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, though, is the growing market for scripted formats in the U.S.

Last year NBC made a pilot of “The IT Crowd,” which it ultimately abandoned, while sketch show “Man Stroke Woman” has also attracted attention.

“Taking the finished tape and the ratings into the U.S. is a far stronger proposition than taking a piece of paper,” says David Ellender, CEO of FremantleMedia Enterprises. “As a producer you’re in a stronger deal-making position in terms of your rights.”

Of course, reversioning British comedies for the U.S. is nothing new, dating back more than 30 years when Fremantle’s “Man About the House” was remade as “Three’s Company.”

Finding another hit on the scale of more recent hit, “The Office,” will be a challenge.

But with Rough Cut working on “The Clone,” the latest sitcom from “Friends” exec producer Adam Chase, maybe the odds of repeating that success are improving.

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