Reality’s two-way highway

Local quirks a major factor as American formats sail o'seas

Can local clones of “The Apprentice” enthrall Euro audiences the way the Donald has managed to entrance viewers in the U.S.?

That’s one of the questions being posed this summer as a wave of Yank reality shows washes up on foreign shores. They range from “The Apprentice,” “The Simple Life” and “The Swan” to “Outback Jack,” “Blow Out” and “Next Action Star.”

The traffic in reality formats was hitherto mostly from Europe to America — think “Big Brother,” “Survivor” and “Pop Idol” — but now the tide is being reversed. Europe represents 75% of the revenues American distributors pocket from licensing their shows around the world.

But the challenge when reality TV crosses borders is that it must adapt formats to local tastes. Differences in what makes pop culture pop can make translation difficult: The U.K.’s snippy, schoolmarmish “Weakest Link” didn’t play well on the Continent; the Americanized “Big Brother” series in the States, which lacked charismatic contestants, was not nearly the phenom it was across Europe.

The challenge facing broadcasters buying in to U.S formats will be to translate the original shows into something to which locals can readily relate. Some adaptations may prove impossible.

For instance, TF1’s reality topper, Ara Aprikian, draws the line at “The Swan.”

“There would be legal and ethical problems in France with a show that incited people to have plastic surgery,” he says. “We are in the TV business, we are not doctors, and there are strict rules governing what doctors can do.”

(On the other hand, rival M6 seems to have had no problem with such issues, having aired the cosmetic surgery makeover show “I’ve Decided to Be Beautiful” last fall.)

In Spain and Italy, reality TV is a near nephew of age-old meandering variety shows.

“Italians prefer their reality long, live and presented to a studio audience by a popular host,” Magnolia CEO Giorgio Gori points out.

With home-computer magnate Alan Sugar playing the British Trump, the BBC’s adaptation of “The Apprentice” looks set to tap into classic advice shows such as John Harvey-Jones’ “Trouble Shooter,” which dispensed no-nonsense tips to ailing firms.

Says Stephen Lambert, the producer of British-originated format “Wife Swap,” which will debut on ABC this fall: “For the last 30 years, BBC1 and ITV had around 20% of their skeds filled by observational docs built around character, filming people in the home, workplace, hospitals. Those shows attracted 30% market shares.”

He points out that such skeins were rarely seen on U.S. screens, Yanks mostly preferring “very heavily produced” and “highly polished artificial constructs.”

Moreover, argue Euro media pundits, European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, tend to relish shows in which people “lose it” — mentally, ethically, sexually — live on camera. (Others observe that Americans also like to see folks “lose it” — but that there should be an upbeat finish.)

Auds in earthy Spain went crazy when one reality contestant, Vanessa, apparently performed fellatio under a blanket on the house stud in “Make Yourself at Home,” despite the fact that her actions lost her the contest. And viewers in soccer-hooligan breeding ground Britain ate up a brawl on “Big Brother 5.”

Media pundits point to further distinctions between American and European tastes which could affect the prospects for reality formats.

Americans, they argue, are interested in victory, Europeans in defeat: Euros want to see ordinary Joes and over-the-hill celebs fail; Yanks, these Euros believe, relish dramas with a happy ending.

Furthermore, there are substantial differences in production styles.

U.S. shows can come across as overly produced and too glamorous, while Europeans prefer the fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting reality.

“In general, U.S. formats come with an unassailable package of elements that can’t be easily replicated,” says GRB’s international sales topper, Gavin Reardon, whose L.A.-based company is the producer-distributor of NBC’s “Next Action Hero.”

Meanwhile, backed by muscular marketing at the recent Mip TV sales bazaar, including a huge poster of Trump festooning the Palais des Festival entrance, FremantleMedia has begun its rollout on “The Apprentice,” the reality show that exemplifies American capitalism.

The skein has sold to Britain’s BBC2, France’s TF1 and Germany’s RTL. Sales of other Yank reality shows — “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “The Bachelorette,” “The Swan” and “The Simple Life” among them — are also brisk.

Tom Gutteridge, CEO of FremantleMedia’s U.S. offshoot, says the “Apprentice” original and the format are generally shopped in tandem and that wherever possible Fremantle involves one of its 29 local production units around the world, in order to guarantee brand consistency.

“What was a one-way street of ideas into America has already turned into a two-way street, and now I think it’s going to be a full-fledged freeway,” Gutteridge says.

But the shift of formats from America to abroad comes just as most of Europe’s shows show signs of creative fatigue.

While several recent American programs — “Bachelor,” “Temptation Island” and “Joe Millionaire” — have performed only so-so in Europe, the latest batch of hopefuls are banking on bigger inroads into Continental schedules.

“As markets around the world become more similar and go after the same younger demos, it is only natural that the traffic in ideas flow in multiple directions,” says Christopher Grant, director of international distribution for Reveille.

Outfit, which is a co-venture with Universal, was set up by Ben Silverman, an American who made his name importing Euro formats to the U.S., but is now in the forefront of those reversing the product flow.

Grant says that several of Reveille’s U.S.-originated shows — “The Restaurant,” “Thirty Days” and “Blow Out” — are busily chalking up deals abroad. “The Restaurant” has even cooked up a localized version in the Middle East, starring a chef named Osama.

Since American dramas and sitcoms no longer populate primetime on European broadcasters, the U.S. studios are increasingly intent on exporting their reality shows to make up for the overall shortfall in their foreign revenues.

Although it’s hard to generalize, U.S. distributors opine that reality shows bring in between $50,000 and $100,000 per episode from foreign sales, but that they can make more as a co-partner on localized, formatted versions.

As a general rule, well-heeled stations abroad prefer to format U.S. originals (just as Americans do with foreign shows they acquire), but smaller players typically just license the U.S. original.

Fox Network Group prexy-CEO Tony Vinciguerra distinguishes between “self-contained” shows like “Fear Factor” and “Dog Eat Dog,” which may have some domestic syndication backend, and “sequential” shows like “The Simple Life” and “Joe Millionaire,” whose post-broadcast potential lies mainly in domestic DVD sales and/or format sales to foreign TV stations.

“It’s a complicated thing assessing the backend revenue potential for reality shows,” Vinciguerra says. He points out that the first season of “Simple Life” sold a whopping 400,000 units on DVD, but that not all such shows will do that well. He also says that licensing a U.S. reality show internationally is not an automatic slam-dunk.

“With a ‘Joe Millionaire,’ you have to sell it 30 times over — that is to 30 different countries — to make a sizable business of it,” Vinciguerra says.

There are other challenges in cracking the European market.

For one thing, not all of the latest batch of Yank reality shows have caught fire Stateside. This summer’s “The Casino” and “Ultimate Love Test,” for example, have been ho-hum at best, and a lackluster performance Stateside does not bode well for sales abroad.

For another thing, the reality genre has lost its novelty appeal abroad.

“As youth-skewed entertainment programming, reality is still very strong, but it’s not a social phenom anymore. People have got used to it,” says Bertrand Villegas at French TV research company WIT.

Still, the genre shows surprising ratings robustness in most of Europe. The top skeins in the five major territories posted shares between 25% and 45% this past season. And “Big Brother” installments have become the lifeblood of some secondary niche channels.

Says Spanish producer Isabel Raventos at Atomis Media: “Broadcasters are taking a more conservative point of view in all Europe. They prefer to keep on broadcasting new installments of what could be called the first reality series developed in Europe because it’s less expensive than assuming new risks.”

If Continental creativity seems to be on the wane, Britain still boasts reality TV vitality. The U.K.’s Granada produced one of Europe’s few new hits in early 2004, “Hell’s Kitchen,” where B-list celeb contestants cook while goaded by star chef Gordon Ramsay.

Commercial net ITV is prepping a grooming show for ill-mannered, loudmouthed women, “Ladette to Lady,” and a political “Pop Idol” for budding politicos. The BBC is incubating a monastery-set spiritual makeover show.

But in the rest of Europe, it’s hard to find much ratings-blasting, cutting-edge creativity. Europe lags behind the U.S. in its TV ad market recovery. Most webs simply do not have the deep pockets to allow them to commission and then dump a pilot.

“People in Europe are waiting for the next big thing. Broadcasters just haven’t been commissioning the big ideas yet,” Fremantle’s Gutteridge says.

Certainly, no format generated more table tittle-tattle at Mip than “The Apprentice.” But much of that talk turned on whether it could prove a hit — or even get made — in Europe.

Still, Endemol Germany paid “The Apprentice” the ultimate compliment recently by announcing a rival format, “Hire or Fire” for Haim Saban’s ProSiebenSat 1, with Endemol co-founder John de Mol playing the Trump role of business guru. De Mol will be looking for a creative director — not, tellingly, a hard-nosed business affairs maven for his own new company.

Meanwhile, in Italy, “The Apprentice’s” local co-producer, Magnolia, is still trying to figure out how to make the format work in that territory.

“Work ethics here are different. Competition is more an Anglo-Saxon than an Italian tradition, and labor laws protect workers far more from summary dismissal,” says Magnolia’s Gori.

Then there’s the fact that the U.S. “Apprentice” pivots on the highly specific celebrity appeal of Trump himself — an outrageous personality who is both obnoxious and endearing.

“A Spanish Donald Trump either doesn’t exist or he’s in jail,” quips a Spanish TV acquisitions exec.

FremantleMedia takes these objections in stride.

“Broadly, people have the same foibles, the same character failings and the same aspirations the world over,” Gutteridge argues.

Adam Dawtrey, Steve Clarke, Emiliano de Pablos, Marlene Edmunds, Alison James, Christian Koehl and Cecilia Zecchinelli contributed to this report.

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