Riding the wave of interest in its “American Idol” phenom for Fox TV, the show’s formatter Fremantle Media is boosting its Stateside development to include drama series.
The Bertelsmann-backed international producer-distrib will start knocking on U.S. network doors next week with the drama concept “Women Behind Bars,” on which it is partnering with Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla Prods.
Idea is to offer a cheaper young-skewing drama concept, possibly for prime access rather than primetime, which could be produced for 50% of the typical budget of a network series.
Fremantle has just moved its European drama topper Jason Daniel to L.A. to head the charge for what it calls “industrial drama production.”
“Now that we’ve transferred the expertise as well as the format of ‘Idols’ to the U.S., we believe we can broaden our base to broadcast nets with other genres we do successfully around the world,” Fremantle CEO Tony Cohen said.
Cohen told reporters Thursday that the company had seen “an amazing turnaround” in its North American operations and profile over the last six months despite the tough worldwide economy.
Fremantle currently produces 260 shows in over 39 countries but has had a fits-and-starts history in the U.S.
One of its units, Grundy, was behind the syndie cult fave “Prisoner of Cell Block H” 20 years ago, but since then the company has not managed to get back in the U.S. network series game.
A series of name changes and a complex wave of acquisitions, including buyouts of producers All American and ACI, have not helped to imprint the Fremantle name in the minds of Hollywood TV types.
Together with his North American head David Lyle, Cohen nonetheless believes that U.S. webheads are more amenable now than ever before to pitches from successful overseas players like Fremantle.
“The success is there for the taking,” Lyle said, pointing to U.S. nets’ growing need for lower-cost programming.
He and Cohen also believe that American broadcasters are “more open now to looking at concepts from outside the U.S.,” given the success of Euro-originated reality formats from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” to “American Idol.”
“Women Behind Bars” is not, according to Fremantle execs, “a female ‘Oz,’ ” but rather a more heartwarming concept. The show, as they envision it, could be watched by the whole family but is aimed at the 18-34 demo.
Daniel said the skein, which currently airs on Germany’s RTL, is “an addictive brand” in that territory and can be transformed for U.S. auds and shot in high def for between $600,000 and $800,000 an episode.
Cohen said that Fremantle believes “the shows it produces are always more important than the stars in the shows” — in other words, its payouts to talent are far from the stunning sums paid to ensembles like the cast of “Friends” or “ER.”
Moreover, Fremantle is proud of its so-called dispo — shorthand for disposition, or the way folks work on its sets — which helps bring in productions for far less than most Euro broadcasters, let alone American ones, fork out.
‘Idol’ judges weighed
In other news, Fremantle North America exec VP of operations Cecile Frot-Coutaz said Fox would be back with “American Idol 2” in early 2003. There will be a few changes. Show will attempt to get at the back stories of the contestants rather than devote the hour format mainly to the performances. There is also discussion about which judges, other than returnee Simon Callow, will be in the second installment.
Finally, Cohen and Lyle are both high on several other successful overseas formats, which they hope to bring to the U.S.
Among them are “Life Laundry,” which airs to big ratings on BBC2 and reflects the “feel good,” even emotionally uplifting, form of reality which Fremantle espouses.
Lyle said he expected that show to be a “cable play” in the U.S.
Another concept is a latenight, edgier version of “To Tell the Truth” (from its wholly owned Goodson library), about which the company is already in discussion with cablers.
Several other formats are being readied for syndie tryouts. These include “Date Squad,” based on “Would Like to Meet,” a lovelife makeover show that appears on BBC2, and “Match Game,” a co-production with Broadway Video that will reinvent the New York-based comedy panel show.
On the downside, the company recently had its two series for cabler A&E, “The Nero Wolfe Mysteries” and “100 Centre Street,” canceled.