It’s time for American formats to cross the pond

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

One of the hottest trends in the U.S. television market right now is finding “formats”-projects from Europe or another territory-and adapting them for the U.S. marketplace. Yes, the last couple of years have been very good for producers who have developed this business strategy. But it is certainly nothing new.
How many of you remember that “Three’s Company,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Cosby Show” and “All in the Family”-some of the most successful sitcoms of all time-were actually “formats” that were adapted for the U.S. television networks?
Now the formatting craze has shifted to light entertainment and so-called “reality” programming. The hit ABC version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is almost identical to its U.K. counterpart, and “Expedition Robinson” (originally produced by top Swedish production company Jarowskij) has had great luck on CBS as “Survivor.” “Weakest Link” is a BBC show that was shopped to the U.S. networks, with NBC winning the prize-and it will occupy two high-profile slots on the network’s fall schedule.
Formats are a hot topic of conversation at television markets around the world. They were the focal point of February’s Monte Carlo Television Market, and in April in Cannes, France, talent agents, independent producers and program buyers strolled the Croisette in search of the next “Survivor.”
Why are formats so hot? First of all, there is a tremendous economic benefit if you are a producer or network. By presenting the tape of the program (even if it’s in a different language), you can eliminate or greatly reduce the cost of producing a pilot.
Second, there is a familiarity factor-and the fact that the product has a proven track record might calm a nervous buyer. Even though tastes and cultures vary in different territories, a concept that does well has a leg up on a project that hasn’t had a chance to prove itself.
Third, the economic model is in place. Advertisers know that this is a proven commodity and quite naturally would feel safer developing and exploiting a format that has already earned the respect and loyalty of a demographically specific viewing audience.
So are formats going to continue to sell? I think the answer is yes, and I’d like to take it one step further. I see the future of this business as sort of a reverse tidal wave. Whereas there has been a tremendous onslaught of projects that have been mined from other territories and are now proliferating on the U.S. television landscape, I see the opposite starting to happen. Rather than our producers and networks relying almost exclusively on European formats, I think American producers will aggressively develop and market their own ideas to various territories around the world. The tide will turn, and American formats will once more be in demand.
With cable, broadband, satellite and a plethora of channels in need of programming, there are tremendous opportunities for proactive producers with a keen eye for creative talent, and by adapting what has already been established domestically, they have the all-important advantage in a highly competitive environment. For the foreseeable future, formats from either side of the ocean will continue to generate viewers and revenues.#
Phil Gurin is executive producer of NBC’s “Weakest Link” and president of The Gurin Co., a light entertainment production company based in Studio City, Calif.