Why the future is bright for UK TV formats

British programmes have never been an easy sell in the US, but the success of 'Big Brother' shattered its parochial reputation. Ciar Byrne reports on a burgeoning market
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If Peter Bazalgette had approached American television networks about buying Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms in the early 1990s, he believes they would not have given him the time of day. At the time, Britain was seen as a parochial programme maker. But all that changed in August 1999 when the US version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was an overnight success. Suddenly, the Yanks were in the market for British formats and Endemol's chief creative officer flogged his shows.

Fast-forward seven years and America has not lost its appetite for UK formats. But research unveiled tomorrow by Mark Oliver of Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates will show that while Britain exports more formats and factual programmes to the US than vice versa, when it comes to drama and comedy, the UK suffers from a substantial trade deficit.

Oliver, who has looked at the trade in ready-for-television programmes, formats, co-productions and DVDs, concludes: "The UK has a better tradition in making interesting factual programmes and formats. In the US, a lot of the talent comes from Hollywood, which is a great fiction producer."

There are historical reasons why British drama does not play well in the US. Here, drama tends to be made in short series of six to 10 episodes, whereas American networks prefer longer runs of 13 or 26 instalments. Inspired by Hollywood and with bigger audiences, the US has been able to pump vast sums into high-concept drama and is not afraid to choose actors for their model looks.

Bazalgette does not see the comparative lack of success of British drama in the US and other markets as a cause for concern: "The purpose of television drama in the UK is to satisfy a UK audience. If you can also sell them abroad, that's great."

He adds: "We make quite a lot of stuff that can be quite dark. It's not what I call happy-ending stuff, which is what you have to do on American television."

Formats, on the other hand, have benefited in every country from the rise of multi-channel television, says Bazalgette. "If you have suddenly got 200 channels, you need more programmes to fill them. Format is a proven product which you can make a local version of."

He believes Britain is ideally positioned for this growing market because of its reputation for risk-taking and creativity. "We have got people who enjoy turning things upside down. British broadcasters are prepared to experiment," Bazalgette says.

"In Germany, they will only take a format if it's been on somewhere else. It's completely different in Britain, where broadcasters like trying out new ideas. People dump on them when programmes fail, but the fact is you should be prepared to fail and take risks."

Before ABC bought Millionaire - which won its slot within a week of its debut - US television had virtually ignored Eur-ope. Hot on the heels of this success, America imported Survivor and then Big Brother, fuelling a craze for reality TV. Recently, more sophisticated versions including Wife Swap and Supernanny have travelled well across the Atlantic.

Big Brother emerged not from Britain, but from Holland, which Oliver says has been successful in exporting formats because it is a small, competitive market, but lacks the language advantage that would enable it to sell finished television programmes.

While he agrees up to a point with this analysis, Bazalgette loyally insists that it is individuals who lie behind the success of his Anglo-Dutch company Endemol, the powerhouse behind Big Brother, and in particular founder John De Mol.

As the competition heats up between terrestrial broadcasters for fragmenting audiences, Bazalgette sees only a bright future for formats. "It's bidding up the value of a successful format - that's good for those of us in the content business."

But as media platforms proliferate, he believes the increasing importance of content could also extend to fiction. "There's going to be more opportunity for good scriptwriters to sell local versions. The world is a smaller place. As all the different media compete for space, those pieces of information - formats or detective series - that can get more and more people around them will become more and more valuable."

The tide is already turning. A new generation of British drama is winning American hearts. Rebranded MI5, Spooks has proved a hit, as has fellow BBC1 show Hustle. The US version of The Office has shown that comedy can be successfully adapted for the American market.

Jane Featherstone, the joint managing director of Kudos and executive producer of Spooks and Hustle, believes their success is down to the fact they were inspired by cinema. "Factual formats are more universal; drama is more nation-specific, it talks to local people about their local concerns. You can see why Supernanny works - everyone is interested in their children - but who would want to watch a local British drama? Spooks and Hustle have both sold in the States and are very rare for that. One of the reasons is they form part of a new generation of British shows with longer runs and attractive actors. Both are cinematic, they are bold, they are fast-paced, high-concept shows.

"Spooks was so current in terms of its subject matter. Hustle is like a mini-movie each week, a whole con-film compressed into 60 minutes. A lot of British drama is more parochial. There's nothing wrong with that, except commercially," she adds.

Kudos is also behind Life On Mars, the surreal cop show set in 1970s Manchester that has proved a runaway success for BBC1, and is currently in talks about selling the show to the US. "It will be very interesting to see what happens with Life On Mars. It's a very culturally specific show. There is interest in America and I think it will sell, but it will probably be one of the smaller channels," Featherstone says.

Like most television executives, she is having meetings about how to get shows on to mobile phones, but Featherstone does not think new technology is having much of an impact on programme sales yet. "I'm yet to be convinced that people will want to watch drama on a three-inch screen. It's a real learning curve at the moment," she says.

But Bazalgette is convinced that mobile technology is the future for television distribution. "The real buzz thing at the moment is the myspace.com generation. How did we cover the 7 July bombings for the first 10 hours? By citizen journalism. People now have the technology to capture images and sound and to disseminate it. Being the ringmaster is the way forward."