Booming TV formats go global in risky times

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The Independent Culture

TV formats have come a long way since the early days of "Pop Idol", "Strictly Come Dancing" and "Weakest Link".

Today they can range from a game show such as "Wipeout", to a Big Brother reality show or a focus on how to control kids - but all are likely to travel the world as countries adapt each to their own culture and taste.

While formats have been rising steadily in popularity over the last 10 years in tandem with reality shows, the economic crisis has propelled the industry to new heights as the sector opts for cheaper programmes and lowered risks.

"What buyers want in an uncertain market is certainty so they're looking for programmes that are tried and tested," Tobi de Graaff, ITV Studio's director of global TV distribution, told AFP during this week's four-day annual MIPTV audiovisual industry show.

Formats are big business, with the sector currently worth some 2.2 million euros, according to a study presented at the Riviera trade show.

And the numbers show no sign of slowing, industry experts say.

ITV's Graff, for example, said format revenues at the influential British-based independent broadcaster are rising 42 percent year-on-year.

"There are fewer risks attached to launching a format compared with producing a whole new programme," said Amandine Cassi of the Paris-based TV research company, Eurodata TV Worldwide.

"TV channels all need proven formats. If the audience ratings are good in one territory then it's twice as likely to be copied," Nathalie Wogue, who heads up international business at Endemol, told AFP.

And when one company decides to invest in making a new format, the only way to get paid for it is to make programmes that can be duplicated, Wogue added.

Selling formats to other countries has become big business with a number of top players dominating the landscape, including Endemol, Freemantle-Media and Banijay.

Hit shows like "Come Dine With Me", for example, have spawned 4,000 episodes in 20 countries, including Slovakia and Croatia as well as Germany and Australia.

Once the concept has been fine-tuned, the big production companies and broadcasters export them to other countries where they very often also have their own local subsidiaries. Endemol and Freemantle, for example, recently opened up branches in Brazil and India where the format business is taking off.

When a company buys a format, it also often purchases the whole production structure, which can also reduce the cost. Endemol, for example, built a giant obstacle course in Argentina to film all the different national versions of the action-packed extreme game show "Wipeout".

The essence of a good format is its ability to work anywhere.

ITV's Tobi de Graaff likens formats to brands such as McDonald's or Starbucks. "You take what's successful about the show without ignoring you're dealing with different cultures. You make the right twists to make it feel home-grown and natural."

The latest twist in the format business is seeing countries which have bought versions of successful formats from market leaders such as Britain now selling their own locally-made versions of the same format back to the country where it originated.

This happened recently to Australia's version of ITV's "Come Dine With Me", which has been sold back to Britain.

To avoid such practices, the producers of one of world's biggest-selling fiction formats, France's "Camera Cafe", obliged companies buying the format to use most of the original scripts although they did allow countries such as China to remove jokes about sex or their boss.

And while coffee machine are ubiquitous worldwide, the Vietnamese asked to swop it for an iced-tea stand.

The number and variety of formats in today's TV market are huge.

Some of the most unlikely recent hit shows include "Popstar to Operastar" that pulled in over five million viewers on a Friday night in Britain to watch eight brave pop stars try to turn themselves into opera sensations.

One of format heavyweight FreemantleMedia's brand new shows, "My Name is Michael", is looking for a male singing sensation who embodies the spirit and voice of late pop star Michael Jackson.

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