Copycats chase Western hits

Regions mold reality programs to fit local flavor

Few were surprised when “The Weakest Link” was taken off air in Thailand for being demeaning to its contestants. Local execs were more surprised that anyone thought the format would work there at all, given the country’s culture of respect. But as the region’s demand for higher quality production values with local flavor increases, formats are proving the ideal solution.

Currently casting is “The Amazing Race Asia,” licensed by Buena Vista Intl. Television to Sony Pictures Entertainment Networks’ channel AXN. Viewer demand has already prompted an extension of the entry deadline, with the channel setting up video booths in many markets to help potential contestants make their audition videos. “We are also casting for the host — the show made a star of Phil Keoghan and will do the same for the Asian host,” says Ricky Ow, general manager at SPE Networks. “And we have already closed 80% of the show sponsorship but I can’t tell you any of them until we’ve sold 100%.”

With a budget described only as “multimillion-dollar,” Ow says BVITV is providing resources and consultancy on the show, with AXN also securing some crew from the show’s U.S. original.

“Offering help with production is as much about protecting the integrity of the brand as providing a service to partners,” says Patrick Schult, m.d. Asia at FremantleMedia. “You can’t risk getting a show tarnished (by bad production) — it’ll never get made again.” But Schult says the ratings success of “American Idol” across Asia can be both a blessing and a curse. “It certainly helps to open doors when selling the format into a territory, but it means audience expectations are very high. They expect the local version to match up to the U.S. version, but we are working with considerably lower budgets.”

The “Idol” phenomenon continues in the region, with Singapore’s second season in pre-production, India wrapping up its second, Indonesia casting for its third, Malaysia having gone to a second, and “Philippine Idol” to air later this year. “We are also hopeful for ‘Japan Idol’ and are in talks with China,” says Schult, who adds that the real challenge lies with looking at life after “Idol.” “We’ve done ‘The Apprentice’ in Indonesia, and are lucky to have a big catalog of great gameshows like ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ in Indonesia and India — and we’ve got some hot new properties coming out of London.”

Also witnessing significant expansion in the region is Endemol, whose growth has prompted the establishment of a Southeast Asian HQ in Bangkok, Thailand. “To think that a year and a half ago we (only) had two programs in the region, ‘Deal or No Deal’ and ‘Big Brother’ in Thailand,” says Endemol Asia m.d. Ed Sharples. The extensive list of deals struck this year includes ‘Changing Rooms’ for Thailand, a co-production ‘time-buy’ that Sharples describes as “a first for Endemol worldwide,” whereby the company will reap revenues for the sale of advertising airtime during the show. Same show is going to second season in Malaysia after 26 episodes on RTM2. “Big Brother 2” is currently on air in Thailand, and that format has taken the Philippines by storm with its “Celebrity” version,; “Teen Big Brother” ends in April with a second season later in the year.

“Fear Factor” also is proving big business for Endemol, with versions for Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia — including a permanent set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “We have had interest for some European countries to shoot ‘Fear Factor’ in Malaysia, some because it’s cheaper, some for a change of scene,” Sharples said.

And, unlike the producers behind the highly incongruous “Weakest Link” for Thailand, Sharples highlights the cultural sensitivities of a region as diverse as Asia. “With ‘Fear Factor’ eating challenges, for example, no beef products for India, no pig for Muslim countries — and there’s no sex aspect to ‘Big Brother’.”

Fremantle’s Schult agrees, lamenting the irresponsibility that can lead to tragedy, like people crushed in the crowd for give-aways in the Philippines. “A great gameshow should be about the journey to the prize. It’s very irresponsible of producers to just go for ‘the money shot’ in countries with such poverty.”