Russian formalist scholar Vladmir Propp doesn’t get that many name checks in the international TV business. But after reading ABC Studios’ now infamous leaked memo on international formats, it seems this little known academic’s influence extends as far as Hollywood’s upper ranks.
As any student of semiology will tell you, Propp’s big breakthrough was his seminal 1928 book, Morphology of the Folk Tale. It’s not much of a page turner admittedly, and you’ll struggle to find it in Borders, but its core argument – that all fairy tales can be broken down into the same set of recurring plot elements and character types – is just as applicable to contemporary TV series and feature films as it was to Russian folk stories.
Perhaps that’s why there was such a muted reaction from the format community, when ABC Studios executive VP Howard Davine wrote to showrunners and executive producers back in June suggesting that it might not always by "necessary or appropriate" to shell out for the rights to foreign formats.
"Often-times what is appealing in the format may be nothing more than a general underlying premise, which, in and of itself, may be no reason to license the underlying property," wrote Davine, demonstrating his impressive grasp of formalist thinking.
It didn’t take long, of course, for these comments to work their way around the world. But what was most surprising about the memo-gate incident wasn’t its contents, or even that someone was foolish enough to put these thoughts down on paper – but the fact that so many execs in the formats business really didn’t seem that bothered about it.
It certainly wasn’t the bombshell Nikki Finke, the online blogger who broke the story, made it out to be – which might explain why the US press were so reluctant to pick up on the story.
Indeed, for a while it looked like it would blow over, especially with half of Europe’s TV producers taking most of August off. But just as Davine must have been breathing a sigh of relief, in stepped Frapa, the international formats protection body, and Fox Reality Channel president David Lyle.
Choosing to issue a strongly worded press release, rather than contact ABC Studios directly (which might have been a more diplomatic approach), Frapa came out all guns blazing – accusing the studio of encouraging producers to rip off international formats and branding the memo as "unacceptable both creatively and commercially."
Lyle even went as far as to suggest that other producers might take a leaf of ABC’s book and "help themselves to the ‘underlying premise’ of Hannah Montana" or even Mickey Mouse.
Not surprisingly, the outburst made headline news on both sides of the Atlantic. And a day later ABC Studios broke its silence and issued a statement, claiming that the intention of the memo had been "greatly misconstrued and misread."
In hindsight, it might have been smarter for ABC to have come out with the statement a bit sooner, before the story spiralled out of control. After all, with the trade in scripted formats to the US booming, and some less scrupulous broadcasters around the world still happy to rip off hit shows from other markets, the memo was bound to set a few alarm bells ringing.
But was it really that controversial to suggest that some programme ideas – a comedy set in an office say or a drama about a group of teachers – might be so general that they didn’t really warrant ABC paying out a hefty format fee?
As one respondent to Finke’s original story commented: "Doesn’t it simply explain the legal need to differentiate between an inspirational source and a direct influence?"
Producers in the UK were also quick to play down the significance of the memo, with some even wondering if Frapa saw the negative publicity as an opportunity to raise its own profile.
Many also commented, off the record, that it was a bit rich for a Fox exec to be accusing anyone else of ripping off formats, given the broadcast network’s reputation for rushing copycat shows – think Trading Spouses and Nanny 911 – onto the air.
ABC by contrast has long been a home for UK formats, from Ricochet’s Supernanny to BBC Worldwide’s Dancing With the Stars. And with all of the networks on the look out for proven hits, there’s no sign of any slowdown in the demand for scripted and unscripted formats in the US.
Inevitably, though, that creates challenges for the studios, especially when it comes to the question of who gets to control the international rights to these remakes. As Davine notes in his memo "the economics of US network production depend on our ability to sell our series internationally."
In the current climate, though, those economic models are fast changing. And you don’t need a degree in cultural anthropology to see that it’s not longer the studios that call all the shots.