John de Mol: Sit back and watch the transformation of television

From the Worldview address given at the Edinburgh International Television Festival by the creator of the 'Big Brother'


The American comedian, Ernie Kovacs, said: "Television is a medium – so called because it is neither rare nor well done." I think he was right, because television certainly isn't rare. Ninety five per cent of homes across the European Union have at least one television set. Meanwhile, the number of channels available to us is multiplying.

I have three dishes in my garden, plus cable so I have access to hundreds of channels. Television isn't rare. But I believe it can be well done and actually is being well done... sometimes. This doesn't sound surprising from my mouth. But Europe has never had so many people producing world-beating media ideas.

New channels and new media mean new opportunities to capitalise on our talent. Endemol for example, of which I am chairman, is driven by our creative departments around the world. And I have recently set up my own corporate creative department at our headquarters in Holland, comparable with an advertising agency.

In simple terms, we are looking for those freaks whose kick it is to be the best and the first in the trends of format development; the weirdos whose aim is to produce the most-talked-about television in the world; the nerds who always think it can be done better, who work 80 hours per week. Okay, I may exaggerate a little, but not too much because you need total dedication to succeed.

I'm proud to say that already, their fertile imaginations have resulted in programmes that are hugely successful all over the world. I would like to point briefly to one recent success: Big Brother. We have learnt a lot from that show. Between 1999, when Big Brother was launched, and the end of this year we have produced 32 series in 17 countries and in each case by an Endemol company. Within a year, the number of countries will be almost 30.

What makes Big Brother a success? I think there are three crucial factors. The first is the compelling core idea. A gripping real-life "soap" that has caught the public imagination everywhere it's been aired.

On the other hand, Big Brother is the only show in the history of television to offer viewers access to all of its rushes through its live stream on pay TV and the Web. For the first time in television, nothing is hidden.

And this brings me to the second crucial factor – the way in which different media... different platforms, have been used. Big Brother is one idea exploited in a variety of media at the same time. And it exploits them all for what they do best. On terrestrial television there is a half hour programme every night, edited to create a dramatic storyline. On digital television and the Web, live footage is streamed. We have an audio package for radio stations and there's the telephone. Viewers call in and vote to evict housemates, ultimately deciding the programme's outcome.

The huge trade imbalance in TV entertainment between Europe and the United States is a fact, but if we learn the clear lessons of such formats as Big Brother and Millionaire we can make our industry a world-beater. The signs are already there.We are facing fantastic opportunities but it will require a lot of effort and determination to ensure that Europe has the best media economy in the world.

A major new hit is never simply a copy of a previous success. We have to innovate if we are going to continue entertaining audiences around the world. When a new idea is born, it seems mad and insane. But such an idea becomes conventional the moment it is a success.

In the 1930's, Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, said of television: "People will get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." New ideas seem crazy at the time. If we adopt the right practices, attitudes and, most of all, the right mentality, I have no doubt that we will experience an unforgettable decade, a decade in which television all over the world will be transformed.

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