Indie shingles raise U.S. export game

Television’s format business used to be more about U.S.-based networks importing reality shows from abroad, putting their spin on them, and turning them into huge hits.

Today, formats have become a borderless global business where ideas flow fast and free.

“It really used to be about one-way traffic — shows coming from the U.K. or Australia to here,” says producer Mark Burnett, who has overseen the successful distribution of several formats. “That’s probably changed in the last five or six years.”

That change was heralded by “Survivor,” which Burnett acquired as a format from British television producer Charlie Parsons and his company, Castaway Television. The show aired for one season on Swedish television under the title “Expedition Robinson,” but it was an immediate smash when it premiered on CBS in summer 2000. Today, the show is in its 20th iteration on CBS, and Castaway distributes it in more than 50 countries.

Most of today’s biggest reality shows — “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Big Brother” — were brought to the U.S. from other countries, but U.S.-developed formats also are popular around the world.

While the major studios certainly sell formats — CBS offers “Next Top Model” and Warner Bros. sells “The Bachelor” — the buying and selling of formats for the most part is the realm of independent, entrepreneurial companies, such as Mark Burnett Prods., Michael Davies’ Embassy Row, Shine Intl. (which bought Ben Silverman’s Reveille in February 2008) and FremantleMedia.

Selling formats requires companies to dig in and work with local producers to create a version of the show that works in the local market, and that’s not always easy.

“Success in the format business is about having a company that can attract the right talent, build partnerships and collaborate with broadcasters in a proper way,” says Rob Clark, president of FremantleMedia Worldwide Entertainment. “You can’t make good shows without getting the right producers.”

Still, studios are looking to monetize assets from every angle, so bringing formats to local markets is becoming more appealing to them as well.

“The economics of the TV business are shifting,” says Fernando Szew, CEO of MarVista Entertainment. “As an industry, we all have to come up with ways to make programs that people want to watch with different economic structures. The world also is more globalized. People travel more, they’re on the Internet and ideas flow much more quickly than they used to.”

Over the past decade, the biggest exports out of the U.S. — measured by the number of countries in which the format has been sold — include Sony’s “Power of Ten,” Burnett and Shine’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” CBS’ “Next Top Model” and Warner Bros.’ “The Bachelor.”

New formats have gotten traction, but producers and distributors also continue to rely on traditional formats, which offer staying power and brand recognition.

“We’re seeing a lot of format revivals such as ‘The Price Is Right,’ ‘Family Feud’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune,’?” says Karrie Wolfe, senior vice president of RDF USA, which is having success with “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.” “Those shows are doing really big numbers in countries such as France and the Netherlands. They are less expensive formats and nostalgic.”

Historically, gameshows have made the best formats because they can be readily adapted and played in local cultures. Reality-competition shows such as “Survivor” or “Idol” function similarly: At their core, they are gameshows relocated to a realistic setting.

In success, formats are the gift that keeps on giving, says Chris Grant, president of Shine Intl.: “The great thing about the format business is if you set up a show and it works, it goes on and on and takes on a life of its own.”

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