With formats drying up overseas, networks are eyeing formats closer to home

Reality TV’s global format war is marching back to domestic shores.

After years of a trade imbalance — in which U.S. networks and producers scoured the globe for hit international formats — execs are finally turning their attention to developing more homegrown series.

“It’s nice to see that an original idea created in the U.S. can still be ordered,” says Endemol North America chairman David Goldberg, who recently sold the series “Love in the Wild,” created in the U.S., to NBC.

Among other large-scale, domestically created series on the way, Mark Burnett’s “Expedition Impossible” has been given a series order by ABC. And CBS is developing “The Same Name,” a celebrity swap show created by 51 Minds.

“There aren’t many good new formats available from overseas,” Goldberg says. “There was an invasion at one point, and Europe had a head start. There were a significant amount of formats available. But in 2010, the well is drying.”

On the network side, the move toward more original U.S. ideas is a sharp shift from the last few years, when international formats ruled.

Virtually every enduring hit primetime series, after all, has been adapted from an overseas idea: “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “Big Brother,” “Dancing With the Stars” and TV’s most recent hit, “Undercover Boss.”

Fox’s “X Factor” — next year’s most anticipated reality TV entry — is also traveling across the pond following huge success in the U.K.

“The network business in the last three or four years shifted over to a format business,” says Renegade 83 partner David Garfinkle. “Look at most of the shows on network TV: They’re formats that came from Europe. But it’s pretty well-known that those formats have dried up … the pendulum is shifting back in our favor now. There’s a real opportunity here.”

Indeed, the list of international megahits that have yet to be adapted in the U.S. is now fairly small.

“That’s certainly not to say there aren’t good formats still being created internationally,” Goldberg says. “But it’s not as fertile as it once was. And they’ve got to now start relying on domestic producers who have had a track record of success.”

Greg Goldman, formerly of RDF USA and now an independent producer set up at Renegade 83, says it was inevitable that the world’s supply of international formats would narrow.

“We were bringing in content from some 50-odd companies at the end,” Goldman says. “There was nothing left to bring in — a complete dearth of material. The challenge is now on us to create the next big thing.”

That’s a bit of a relief for U.S. producers, who have been squeezed in recent years as networks look for rights and ownership stakes. Harboring a format that can then be exploited overseas is much more lucrative than simply becoming a producer-for-hire on a format imported from elsewhere.

With limited shelf space at the broadcast networks and a preference there for pre-tested international series, many producers have had to refocus their attention on the cable space.

Cable nets have been much more open to original U.S. ideas, and have a much hungrier appetite (and much more room) for ideas big and small.

“On the plus side, there are a lot of networks now, and with consolidation they’re owned by these big corporations who have a lot of programming needs and who are spending real money,” Garfinkle says. “We’re in business with seven or eight different networks right now.”

Cable phenomenons like 495 Prods.’ “Jersey Shore,” Magical Elves’ “Top Chef” and Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise have all come from U.S. production companies.

Still, there’s nothing quite like a broadcast network hit. The Big Four, however, haven’t had much shelf space in recent years to cultivate new series — but now they’re realizing that they better do something about it.

“These super-successful brands are expensive to make, and dominate large parts of the schedule, frequently in multiple slots and year parts,” says one network exec. “It stifles the ability to innovate. Something will pop overseas. We have, however, been studiously trying to create new shows.”

Homegrown formats are also good business for the networks, as they look to own a piece of more of their reality fare in the same way they now own most of their own scripted programming.

“We are trying not to rely overly on international formats, stimulating as much commerce as possible in the U.S. creative community,” says one exec. “We’re also sticking by things we believe can evolve and show growth. That is not to say that we won’t embrace innovation wherever it comes from. The next big killer format will probably come from a market that can still take risks and challenge the world order.”

In that regard, producers and networks are looking to territories such as Scandinavia, where shows like NBC’s “Minute to Win It” were born. Israel has also become a hot format territory. And Russia’s popular “What? Where? When?” is being turned into ABC’s “Million Dollar Mind Game.”

At the U.S. outpost of international giant Endemol, Goldberg says he’s looking to strike a balance between foreign adaptations, like the company’s new Fox series “Million Dollar Money Drop,” and original ideas like “Love in the Wild.” Endemol USA even co-created a show, “101 Ways to Leave a Game Show,” with foreign sibling Endemol U.K.

And rather than simply commit to a format, either foreign or domestic, the networks are looking to start shooting more presentations to get things right, Goldberg says.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more of an interest in committing to (reality) pilots,” he says. “It’s more about getting behind big ideas and believing in them and supporting them.”

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