Buyout allows RDF founder to take on production giants

In less than a month, David Frank, one of the pioneers of British independent production, has gone from running the shingle he founded, which operates in the U.K. and the U.S., to heading one with flags planted in more than 20 countries.

The broadened portfolio follows Paris-based producer-distributor Zodiak’s purchase of his RDF Media (best known for reality shows like “Wife Swap”) for $219 million, with Frank heading the new, combined entity.

It is a deeply ambitious move that will see the exec, 51, compete with global giants Endemol, FremantleMedia and the fast-growing Shine on the international stage.

“Does it feel very different being in charge of a company that I didn’t start?” Frank muses. “The honest answer is no. When I launched RDF in 1993, 40% of it was owned by other people.

“But this is a steep change for me, because RDF was essentially a production company working in the U.K. and the U.S. with an international distribution arm laid over the top. Zodiak operates in more than 20 territories that include India and Latin America as well as Europe.”

Given this infrastructure, Frank hopes the new, enlarged company will be able to leverage, say, a U.K. hit and roll it out across the Zodiak universe.

It is a model that many independents aspire to.

The question remains whether Frank, one of the first Brits to pursue independent production as a business rather than a lifestyle choice, will be able to pull it off — or whether the conflicting priorities of different nations’ viewing tastes and habits will prove too challenging.

Some say Frank, who earned his law degree at Oxford U., followed by stints as an investment banker and a financial reporter for the BBC, is more preoccupied by a desire to make money than a commitment to keep the programming bar high.

The exec dismisses such talk as “utter nonsense. I love TV and am passionate about quality,” he says. “In any case, the most commercially valuable shows also tend to be the best shows.”

RDF’s high-concept drama “Being Human,” being adapted for SyFi in the U.S., arguably gives the lie to Frank’s detractors.

In his new role, a priority is getting the Zodiak name better known across the Atlantic. RDF USA, which operates in Los Angeles and New York, will be rebranded under the Zodiak banner.

Frank believes the merger will “significantly enhance our U.S. business.” He calls the tie-up a good fit for both entities, because Zodiak is a pan-European company specializing in fiction, with little presence in the U.S. and the U.K., while RDF, known for factual and factual entertainment shows, is well established in the U.K. and the U.S.

“The deal gives us greater confidence to establish ourselves in the fiction arena,” Frank says.

For Frank, selling RDF Media also means he can finally move on from the 2007 dust-up known in Blighty as “Queengate,”in which a trailer for an RDF documentary about Queen Elizabeth II, made for the BBC, was manipulated to wrongly give the appearance that the British monarch had angrily walked out of a photo shoot.

In the ensuing fallout, the BBC and ITV, two of RDF’s biggest domestic customers, suspended all commissions from the producer pending the results of an inquiry into the trailer.

RDF Media was one of the first U.K. shingles to float successfully on the London stock market, but in the wake of Queengate, its stock price tanked. Frank, who’d grown the shingle by acquiring smaller British producers such as IWC Media and Touchpaper Television, responded to the crisis by engineering a private-equity management buyout which, despite the credit crunch, was eventually completed in February 2009.

“I feel that a line has finally been drawn under all the events triggered by Queengate,” Frank says. “It … was pretty traumatic for everyone involved.”

Now he is poised to take on the world.

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