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Formats that know no borders

November 10, 2002|Elizabeth Jensen

Cannes, France — Americans may blanch at the prospect of picking a 2004 Presidential candidate via the FX network, but as the world of international television demonstrates, "reality" TV has not yet found the outer limits of taste and ingenuity. Unemployed Argentines can turn to "Recursos Humanos" (Human Resources) to compete for jobs, cash and prizes. The Danes watch clairvoyants pursue real unsolved murders in "Sensing Reality" (soon to be on U.S. television). And to sort out their spiritual lives, the Dutch just got "The New Retreat."

As the world moves to a new model for creating TV shows -- one that continues to mushroom in the few short years since "Survivor" burst on the scene -- many programs are getting their start at the Palais des Festivals, the white convention hall that juts out into the Mediterranean in Cannes (also the home of the annual film festival in May). Outside, in early October, elderly couples promenaded with their poodles, while inside the four-day MIPCOM market, some 10,000 TV executives from around the world made the rounds of tiny screening rooms, intently watching videotapes of new formats to be adapted for back home.

For decades, these screening sessions were much different: U.S. studios made shows, and the world's broadcasters bought them and dubbed them, with little thought to their appeal to local audiences. Even flops found overseas outlets because they were packaged with highly sought TV rights to the studios' theatrical movies.

In the 1990s, however, viewers demanded home-grown shows, and German comedies and French historical miniseries pushed "Baywatch" and "ER" to less prominent times. But co-productions -- attempts at making one program for several different markets, using, say, German and American co-stars and an Italian director -- largely turned out to be a recipe for mush.

Today, with money tight everywhere, broadcasters have seized on the model of formats -- mostly reality-based -- that can air in many countries but be customized for an individual country's tastes, for less money than it would take to create shows from scratch. Even better, the shows appeal particularly to elusive young viewers.

"Internationalization of content is sensible for broadcasters," says Rupert Gavin, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, which has had hits in "The Weakest Link" and "Dog Eat Dog."

That's why, at Dutch company Endemol's booth, with its full-sun terrace overlooking the yachts in the Cannes harbor, some executives were closeted inside watching a tape of a twentysomething trying to see how long he could toss and catch a head of iceberg lettuce before it disintegrated, part of the silly stunts in "The People's Book of Records" pilot.

"A good format is a good format, no matter where it is from," says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, whose parent company has brought the world "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor," and hopes to do the same for "People's Book," the salon-set "TV-Hairdresser" and the let-someone-else-run-your-life show "Master Plan."

Not every program works in every market, however, for taste reasons, or otherwise. A British show wants participants to try to catch illnesses; several shows advertised gave erotic twists to standard star-search-type formats. Goldberg says there are few limits these days on what can be proposed. "You can't kill someone, but I think people will try to do everything possible to that point. It's not necessarily a good thing."

-- Elizabeth Jensen

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