FremantleMedia Reinvents Itself

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It’s no secret that “American Idol” has powered Fox’s ratings, but it has also transformed an independent syndicator that was struggling with an identity crisis into a leading reality show producer for U.S. broadcast and cable networks.
North America, which produces “Idol” with 19 Television, has a full slate of shows in production, including a new series for MTV called “Your Face or Mine.” The series, to be hosted by comedian Dan Levy, is a game show in which contestants have to answer questions that force them to choose between their partner and another person.
Fremantle is also producing two of Fox’s next big reality projects: “The Swan,” which debuts March 29, and “The Complex,” which is targeted for an August airdate. And CBS, which aired Fremantle’s dating show “Cupid” last summer, bought the game show “Liar,” a co-production with Reveille Productions that will be hosted by D.L. Hughley.
Four years ago, was best known for producing “Baywatch,” “The Price is Right” and struggling game revivals such as “Card Sharks” and “To Tell the Truth.”
That all started to change in 2001, when Cecile Frot-Coutaz, chief operating officer of production, along with David Lyle, who recently left his post as president of entertainment, took over Fremantle’s U.S. operation.
Fremantle’s story is much like the concept behind upcoming series “The Swan.”
“It’s not a makeover show,” the French-born and -raised Ms. Frot-Coutaz said about the show. “They all have one thing in common other than wanting to go through plastic surgery. They all feel stuck in their lives. They feel they can’t really achieve their dreams.
“What the show is there to do is to help them transform themselves into somebody that they have respect for. If you don’t fix the fundamental problems you have with yourself or with your relationships, you’re never going to get over that hurdle. The show is not about the plastic surgery. It’s about the transformation, the journey.”
Fremantle’s journey to lose its image as a game show syndicator began with Ms. Frot-Coutaz. After earning her MBA from the European Institute of Business Administration in Paris, she joined the London office of the company (then called Pearson) in 1994. Soon after, she transferred to the television division-ironic, considering television was forbidden in her household when she was growing up-where she was responsible for corporate strategy and was a key figure in numerous acquisitions to build up Pearson’s television holdings. The holdings included the U.S. syndication operation, which had an extensive library of game show formats and “Baywatch.” She later headed up the company’s southern European operations before moving to the U.S. division, which was losing money.
With the consolidation of the syndication market, it became difficult for an independent company that didn’t own a station group to clear shows, which were traditionally deficit-financed.
Ms. Frot-Coutaz, who splits her time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Mr. Lyle quickly came to the conclusion that Fremantle needed to get out of the syndication business and focus on producing shows, Ms. Frot-Coutaz said.
In October 2001, Fremantle signed a deal with Tribune Entertainment to distribute its first-run programming, which included “Family Feud,” “Card Sharks” and “To Tell the Truth.” Fremantle’s only show left in syndication today is “Feud,” whose ratings are up this season year to year.
“We decided to refocus the operation here on producing shows, which is what this company [does] everywhere else around the world, and to really focus on cable and network,” Ms. Frot-Coutaz said. “We started by using the strength of this company, which is that we have a lot of formats from all parts of the world.”
That was a fortuitous decision given that reality programming was just starting to become the next big thing in the U.S. television marketplace and Fremantle-which is owned by Europe’s largest TV and radio broadcast company, RTL Group-had access to proven reality formats from its divisions in other countries around the world.
Reality formats were potentially more lucrative for Fremantle than syndicated shows because U.S. networks would cover the entire cost of production in the license fees they pay to producers, leaving Fremantle with a much lower risk.
The format that became Fremantle’s game changer in the United States was “Idols,” a co-production with 19 Television. However, “American Idol” wasn’t an easy sell at the time. “In this business it takes time to change people’s perceptions,” Ms. Frot-Coutaz said. “It takes time to convince buyers that, no, you’re not only about game [shows], no, you can deliver reality and, yes, you can produce.
“The big hurdle [with `Idol’] was people saw it as a music show. People would say that’s not going to work because music shows don’t work in this country.”
After seeing the success of CBS’s summer series “Survivor,” Fox took a chance and bought “American Idol” as a summer series three years ago.
Now in its third edition, “Idol’s” Tuesday episode is the highest-rated show on television among adults 18 to 49 and total viewers. And its audience keeps growing. After 15 episodes, “Idol” is averaging an astounding 11.6/30 in adults 18 to 49, up 13 percent over the previous “Idol,” and 26.6 million total viewers, up 23 percent.
With “American Idol’s” help, in just three years, Fremantle’s U.S. division was profitable. “If we hadn’t had `Idol,’ [Fremantle’s transformation] would have taken a bit longer,” Ms. Frot-Coutaz said. “I’m sure we would have achieved it in the end as well, but I think it would have taken longer.”
In addition to its broadcast network business, Fremantle produces numerous cable shows including TLC’s “Date Patrol,” which was just renewed for another year, and Food Network’s “Oliver Twist.” The producer is also close to a deal with a cable network to produce a lifestyle show and is shooting a broadcast network pilot best described as an unscripted comedy.
Mike Darnell, who heads up the alternative programming department at Fox, said that although Fremantle is a big production company spanning two continents, there aren’t a bunch of layers of management throwing up roadblocks. “They are extraordinarily easy to get along with,” Mr. Darnell said. “It’s a big company that feels like a small one.”
Mr. Darnell credits Ms. Frot-Coutaz with much of the easy working relationship. “She’s very good at bringing compromise together,” he said. “There have been big issues that have come up in the `Idol’ world and other things where she has played middleman and done a wonderful job. To me, she’s like detente. She is very easygoing, very creative and clever, but at the same time, she has the ability to make problems go away.”
With a hit show and a broad slate of upcoming programs, Ms. Frot-Coutaz said the next step is to develop new shows for the U.S. market. “A lot of our expansion so far, apart from `The Swan’ and `Cupid,’ has been based on bringing over formats that worked internationally and tweaking them for the U.S. market. The next step is for us to start generating our own material that we can then feed back to the rest of the world.”
Cost-Efficient Dramas
Fremantle, which produces scripted programming in other countries, has also been pitching the U.S. networks a model to produce cost-efficient scripted dramas. “We really believe it’s an area that has potential in North America because dramas are everything but cost-efficient here,” she said.
For the past few years, U.S. broadcast network executives have been clamoring for low-cost solutions to produce scripted programming, but the rhetoric has not produced results. Production costs keep climbing, with the average first-year network drama costing around $2 million an episode.
Despite the demand for cost-efficient solutions, it hasn’t been an easy sell, Ms. Frot-Coutaz said. “In the end, the people who make the creative decisions aren’t necessarily accountable financially,” she said. “T
hat’s the problem.”
Ms. Frot-Coutaz said Fremantle wouldn’t simply take scripted formats from other countries and Americanize them. Instead, the shows would be new ideas written specifically for the U.S. market. But she said the model, which includes controlling above-line costs by casting unknown actors and a writing technique that leaves the door open for a series to run for many years, can translate to the United States.
About a year and a half ago, Fremantle hired the William Morris Agency to help the company expand its U.S. business in reality and scripted programming.
“Among the things they bring to the table is their international expertise, along with a domestic expertise within this marketplace,” said Greg Lipstone, co-head of the network television department at William Morris. “As will be evidenced in the shows they have coming up for the U.S. marketplace, it’s about-no matter what part of the world you are in-capturing the sensibilities of the marketplace you’re selling in. They have done that very well.”
While Fremantle has had success adapting foreign formats for U.S. audiences, there are some shows that wouldn’t translate as well, Ms. Frot-Coutaz said.
“There are shows that are sometimes too soft for the U.S. or fundamentally the pace is too slow,” she said. “Some of the British lifestyle shows don’t translate so well to the U.S. because the pacing is never quite right. The U.S. needs more edge, more twists and turns.”
However, Ms. Frot-Coutaz is thankful that Americans tend to be more outgoing than Europeans. “You get much better television out of American contestants than you ever do out of French contestants,” she said. “You can get all kinds of crazy people, and they talk back. They’re funny. They get annoyed. They get angry. You get the whole gamut of emotions. Culturally, people hold back a lot more [in Europe]. You don’t get the extreme reaction you can get here.”
is the content production arm of Europe’s largest TV broadcast company, RTL Group, which is 90 percent-owned by Bertelsmann AG and 10 percent publicly owned.