U.K.’s RDF turns junk into jewels

Co. in aggressive trans-Atlantic growth spurt

LONDON — RDF Media is bidding to make it big in America with a load of old junk and some Japanese fakes.

The London-based company, which makes the Emmy-nominated “Junkyard Wars” for TLC, has just launched the spoof Japanese gambling show “Banzai” on USA Networks.

And with several more reality formats in the works for Stateside webs, RDF is in the midst of an aggressive trans-Atlantic growth spurt intended to lead to a stock flotation within the next three to five years.

Unusual for a company with such commercial ambitions, its roots lie not in the traditional ratings-winning genres of drama, comedy or gameshows, but in docs and current affairs.

Chief exec David Frank, who founded RDF in 1993, started out in business programming. Director of programs Stephen Lambert headed the BBC’s doc strand “Modern Times” before joining RDF in 1998.

Since then, the duo have steered the company toward the crossover between factual and entertainment. In the process, they have helped pioneer that most fashionable hybrid, reality TV.

Sales have multiplied from £4.5 million ($6.3 million) in 1998 to a predicted $42 million by the end of this year. Earlier this year the company tapped former ITV and Pearson honcho Richard Eyre as its chairman.

It’s all part of a deliberate strategy, explains Frank, to build a business that can be floated.

“The nature of our business was non-returning series or singles,” he says. “We took a look over the garden wall at the entertainment companies, and we went looking for formats that could keep running.”

“Junkyard Wars,” which started life in the U.K. as “Scrapheap Challenge,” was a conscious effort to graft a gameshow format onto a science program.

Produced by RDF’s fast-expanding Los Angeles office, the show has established a beachhead for the company in America. It has also made a minor cable celebrity out of the company’s U.S. president and head of science Cathy Rogers, who presents as well as produces “Junkyard Wars.”

Like several Brit producers, RDF is repped by the William Morris Agency — but unlike the others, RDF is producing its own shows directly for the webs instead of going through a U.S. studio.

“There has been a sea change in the way we develop shows,” Lambert says. “We say, ‘Let’s see if we can get an idea up and running in the U.K. as a pilot, and then we can take it to America.’ ”

“Banzai,” originally produced for the U.K.’s Channel 4, has been reversioned as “Banzai Movie Nights,” with segs used as links between cabler USA’s Friday night movies. It launched Stateside Aug. 10.

RDF also is negotiating a Stateside deal for the format “Perfect Match,” in which a female contestant’s mother, best friend and ex-boyfriend choose a new partner for her from 50 suitors.

Also in the works is “Close Encounters,” a hidden camera show that RDF is piloting for USA.

TLC and Channel 4 are lining up to co-finance a pilot of “Death Race,” an international challenge show involving large machines.

Recent hires include Sam Anthony, a Brit who has been sent to Los Angeles as senior VP, reality programs, and Martin Davidson, who was behind the BBC’s “History of Britain,” as RDF’s head of history. Company also is moving into drama via new arm Touchpaper, headed by Rob Percy.

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