The slow global economy — particularly in Europe — is continuing to dictate TV buys across the world, report international television distributors as the industry gets ready to head to Cannes for this year’s Mip.

“What’s really working right now is very character-driven factual television, and those characters can either be celebrities or non-celebrities,” says Karoline Spodsberg, managing director of Banijay Intl. “It’s a way for people to escape from everyday life. They either love to follow these people because they wish they were them, or they are so happy they are not them.”

The past year’s biggest international success was “The Voice,” a global format that was brought to NBC by Talpa, the production company of Dutch format wiz and TV entrepreneur John de Mol, after “The Voice of Holland” became a huge hit there. The show combines two trends that most executives refer to when talking about what international buyers seem to be seeking right now: characters and celebrities.

On the big-format front, the stellar performance of “The Voice” on otherwise bleak NBC has brought international attention to it and its stars: Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton.

While the show’s core premise — a singing competition — is nothing new, it’s the show’s mix of celebrities and the way they relate to each other and the competitors, stronger singing talent and competitive twists that seems to be drawing fresh audiences.

“What’s so important right now is the package of talent that’s built into a show,” says John Pollack, president of international for Ben Silverman’s Electus. “The (competitive) talent on these shows has always been great; now networks are really stepping up the celebrity talent.”

“The Voice” also is the next big international format — along the lines of “Pop Idol,” “X Factor” and “Got Talent” — for which buyers are always on the lookout because they are economically reasonable and low-risk.

“The format market is sustainable because it’s a business model that benefits producers, broadcasters and audiences,” says Rob Clark, director of global entertainment for FremantleMedia. “I don’t see that there’s ever going to be an end to this sort of market. If you are spending tens of millions of dollars on big network shows, you need to cut your risk.”

Electus hopes to have a “Voice”-level format success on its hands with “Fashion Star,” which premiered in the U.S. March 13 on NBC and is sold in multiple territories. The show has the requisite celebrities, featuring Elle Macpherson as host and Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and designer John Varvatos as mentors.

“Fashion Star” combines a few other familiar elements — intense competition, creativity and high stakes — with a twist: All the clothes that viewers see on the show will be available in Saks Fifth Avenue or H&M.

“It’s totally interactive,” says Pollack. “You can buy the winning clothing online that night, and buy it in stores the next day.”

Digital tie-ins also are becoming more crucial across the globe, says Clark.

“The play-along aspect from either a social media or Internet point of view is something that’s happening almost everywhere,” he says. “It’s not just a social media tie-in with the show, but actually second-screen play-along. It’s a drive to get the younger demos. I don’t see myself lying on the sofa watching a gameshow and playing along, but I don’t think my godkids would watch TV without it.”

Adds Spodsberg: “More and more, we are seeing the secondary platforms — Facebook, Twitter, social media — getting integrated into the programs.”

Big celebrities starring on big formats are always in fashion, but right now many companies also are having success selling much smaller shows populated by big characters. That trend was kicked off by the success of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and followed by shows such as A&E’s “Pawn Stars” and “Storage Wars” and Electus’ “Mob Wives.”

“The whole unscripted area continues to be incredibly strong,” says Christian Murphy, senior veep of international programming and marketing for A&E Networks. “That’s where a lot of the audience is — it performs incredibly well and is universal in its appeal. People will continue to find interesting ways to shine light on little pockets of society and bring them to the screen.”

Unscripted, character-driven series can be highly engaging and are far less expensive to produce than scripted dramas, which remain popular but are often produced via co-productions these days to keep costs down and global appeal high.

“Scripted is in a tough position right now because it’s super expensive to produce,” Spodsberg says. “We cannot avoid the fact that we’re in the middle of a second wave of financial crisis this year.”

That said, production companies remain in the scripted drama business; they are just going about it carefully.

“For us, the big trend is the appetite for high-quality drama, and drama with more international stories that lend themselves to co-production,” says Maria Kyriacou, managing director of ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which is bringing a strong slate of co-produced dramas, such as Stephen Poliakoff’s “Dancing on the Edge,” “Endeavor” (about young Inspector Endeavor Morse) and “Falcon,” based on Robert Wilson’s books about Spanish detective Javier Falcon. ITV’s huge global co-production, “Titanic,” written by “Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes, premieres on ABC in April.

Combining formats with characters has brought dating shows back into prominence, led by the resurgence of Warner Bros.’ “The Bachelor,” which foundered for a few seasons before returning strong when producers realized that audiences preferred to watch bachelors and bachelorettes whom they already knew over professional athletes and foreign royalty.

“Dating is hot, hot, hot,” says Clark, “not only in terms of what we know in terms of what’s on the air, but also in terms of what’s coming.”

Companies across the board are bringing dating formats to Mip, with FremantleMedia offering “Take Me Out,” “Farmer Wants a Wife” and “All for Love.”

Viacom Intl. Media Networks will headline its dating show, “Friend Zone,” in which best friends who have never dated venture out together, says Caroline Beaton, VIMN’s senior VP of programming.

ITV has “Please Marry My Boy,” which was a hit in Australia.

In tough economies, it all comes down to safety. Kyriacou says, “In difficult times, broadcasters want to know that they are buying something with commercial appeal that is tried, tested and sustainable.”

MIP 2012
Europe’s silver lining | Mip buyers want to keep it real | Hasbro co-prods a go | Japanese TV

bent on solving online riddle | Aussie A&E on reality spree | BSkyB broadens buying base with comedy slate
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