From the man who gave you Big Brother: Couples in Chains!
John de Mol believes the day of the star is dead. Ordinary people in extraordinary situations are the future for TV he tells
Tuesday 05 September 2000
You may not know his name but you'll certainly have heard of his most famous creation. John de Mol is
Big Brother's dad, the man who single-handedly put a new TV genre on the international map. "Reality programming", "psycho TV", "deprivational voyeurism" - whatever you call it, some may think Holland's self-styled king of television has a lot to answer for. But De Mol has a portfolio of other "reality TV" formats up his sleeve and, with plans for global expansion, has his eye set on a far bigger prize.
You may not know his name but you'll certainly have heard of his most famous creation. John de Mol is Big Brother's dad, the man who single-handedly put a new TV genre on the international map. "Reality programming", "psycho TV", "deprivational voyeurism" - whatever you call it, some may think Holland's self-styled king of television has a lot to answer for. But De Mol has a portfolio of other "reality TV" formats up his sleeve and, with plans for global expansion, has his eye set on a far bigger prize.
It's hardly surprising, then, that De Mol affects weary bafflement when asked about his ongoing legal tussle with the British TV tycoon Charlie Parsons. The dispute hit the British headlines two weeks ago, when Parsons confirmed his plans to appeal against a Dutch judge's ruling in June that, contrary to Parsons' claim, Big Brother was not a rip-off of Parsons' own reality TV format, Survive!.
"The producers of Wheel of Fortune have as much right to say Big Brother came from Wheel of Fortune," De Mol wearily sighs. "I don't know what [Parsons] thinks he can achieve. Look at Big Brother and Survive!, and anyone can see 150 differences. Perhaps he is irritated by Big Brother's success. But I see the two as helping each other, as, in many countries where one has been broadcast, the other follows soon after."
He has a point. In the US, where Survive!, known as Survivor!, recently culminated on CBS with a finale attracting audiences of more than 50 million, Big Brother is also airing, on the same channel. Closer to home, negotiations are now under way with British broadcasters eager to cash in on the Big Brother phenomenon. Industry sources suggest that a deal for a British version of Survive! is imminent. And commissioning editors are considering a plethora of other "reality TV" formats, fuelled by both Big Brother and Survive!'s international success.
Meanwhile, Channel 5 is launching Jailbreak, a six-nights-a-week format involving 10 "prisoners" trying to escape from a purpose-built jail. Participants face a gruelling daily routine modelled on experiences in a real prison. Each will depend on the help of an escape committee of sympathetic viewers in contact by e-mail. Also in the pipeline is Charlie Delta Foxtrot, in which participants fly around the world in a luxury jet. Each week, viewers vote for one of the team to be in charge of taking the aircraft to its next destination, where various challenges are set.
All of which is not to mention the Big Brother spin-off formats developed by Endemol itself. For as well as Big Brother, De Mol's team has come up with Money For Your Life, a no-holds-barred video diary. Then there's The Bus - Big Brother set on a bus touring the country, with participants able to interact with members of the public and receive and modify their behaviour according to media coverage. And Chains of Love - participants must choose from four members of the opposite sex to whom they are chained, 24 hours a day, for a week in a Big Brother-style house.
Negotiations with British broadcasters are advanced, and De Mol expects The Bus or Chains of Love to be his next "reality TV" offering to hit British television. For while bishops and media psychoanalysts fret about the potentially harmful effects of exploiting both the unwitting contestants and the audience's baser instincts, De Mol has identified a rich seam in the Western TV audience's conscience, which he is determined to exploit. And no, he says, he does not object to the use of that word.
"I don't disagree we exploit," he says. "But we only exploit as any programme-maker exploits - be it in a game show, or even a news report which interviews the relative of someone who's just died in an air crash. I dislike distinctions that what is acceptable for a news programme is not acceptable for an entertainment show. The people we cast are carefully selected, 100 per cent capable of understanding what they are getting involved in, and do so to satisfy their own goals."
It's not so much about cashing in on exhibitionism as capitalising on people's curiosity, De Mol continues. "The big stars' day has passed. We have proved that normal, next-door people can be and are very interesting to watch, and that audiences think so, too," he says. "After a period when TV seemed so very far away from its viewers' daily lives, a new generation today view it very differently from their parents. TV is part of their normal, everyday life and - just as important - has become something that can be used for personal benefit."
As in the UK version, a number of those participating in other countries' versions of Big Brother have done so to develop a media career. It's a generational thing, De Mol adds shrewdly. And as such, despite criticism, delivers the elusive youth audience all broadcasters hold so dear.
With a reputation as one of Holland's most creative and colourful entrepreneurs, De Mol has certainly proven both his business and his production credentials. The son of a Dutch crooner (De Mol has described him as "Holland's Frank Sinatra"), De Mol began his media career as a runner at a pirate radio station broadcasting from the North Sea. With an actress sister - who has long been one of the best-known TV personalities in Germany - it was only a matter of time before he moved into TV. He worked his way up, building a production company that by the Nineties was one of Holland's biggest. Then came a flurry of lucrative financial deals.
In the early Nineties, De Mol merged his company, John De Mol Produkties, with that of another leading player, Joop van Ende Productions, to create Endemol Entertainment. Since then, Endemol has pursued an ambitious and aggressive international expansion plan; it now has offices in 13 European and two non-European countries and was recently acquired by Spain's Telefonica group in a multibillion-pound deal that will also involve Endemol providing content to internet, third-generation mobile phone and other distribution platforms.
De Mol says that his inspiration for Big Brother was the Biosphere project (in which human participants were locked into a greenhouse for scientific experiments) - oh, and several drinks at the end of a late-night brainstorming session. And the show is active across a range of production genres, including drama, comedy and talk. Small wonder, then, that when asked about the rights and wrongs of his latest TV genre, De Mol sets his response in a broader context.
"Reality TV" is not about seeing how far people are willing to go for fame, fortune or whatever other motives they have for taking part, he insists. "How far you can push the format depends on the individuals involved. We've done these sort of shows for the past five years or so, and it always depends on character."
In the case of another of Endemol's reality programmes, All You Need Is Love (a dating game in which members of the public use TV to track down people they have seen in real life and fancy), De Mol says he has intervened on a number of occasions to drop items where the people involved could be hurt: "Problems can arise, not from the situation you set up, but from the combination of a particular person and that situation. If someone is insecure and you can see they will inevitably be rejected, we can and have said 'no' because it might cause too much hurt."
De Mol's goal, he says, is to be in the top three production companies in each country where Endemol is present, "something we have achieved in many countries already. But there is still a long way to go." He adds: "We would still like to be up there in the top three international production companies - alongside Pearson, for example, although we are very different."
Two years ago in the UK - one of five key territories identified by the company in its global expansion plan - Endemol acquired a 50 per cent stake in Guardian Media Group's TV production interests, which included Changing Rooms' producer Bazal and Initial, the music and events TV production company behind the recent televisual reappearance of Miss World. Two weeks ago, Endemol upped that interest to 100 per cent.
De Mol says he is eager to develop a broad range of productions for the lucrative American market. But, without doubt, interest in his "reality TV" formats seems unlikely to abate, for the time being at least. For proof, look no farther than the reports of increasingly bizarre programme concepts being developed by US broadcasters and producers. The latest is "Destination Mir", a reality-come-action-adventure game show offering the chance to win a trip to the ageing space station. In a unique twist, Russian space officials will eliminate a contestant each week.
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