My favourite 90’s trade ad, for the legendary Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles, read: ‘Our hotel is so Hollywood that the pool is shallow at both ends’. Specifically targeted at the bi-annual Cannes TV market, it cleverly played into the international perception of a parade of endless crass and downmarket TV and film products coming out of the West Coast. While finished American shows continued to dominate foreign schedules, overseas TV producers could see few routes into the original US programming business. However, there has been a sea-change during the first decade of the 21st Century, particularly in the reality TV arena which includes entertainment formats.
‘Reality’ is now the umbrella American TV word for all non-fiction programming. The big American networks used to dominate the landscape, but a multiplicity of sizeable cable channels have won significant audience share over the last ten years and are open to the best ideas from established producers, whatever the country of origin. Even if the originators of a great concept have no track record in their own country, a US broadcaster will pair them with a US production company rather than lose potential gold-dust.
There are two basic ways of doing reality business in the States. Either an overseas producer will compete with US production companies to turn good US-based ideas into entertainment formats or docudramas. This is largely achieved by being of sufficient size and scale in your home market to set up an American operation where you can chase and close rights to characters, lifestyles and formats on the ground in the United States and then make the programmes locally so that the US broadcaster can be involved in the process.
September Films, one of the DCD Media group of companies that I run, is currently in production, out of its LA office, on three major docudramas for three different cable channels: season seven of Bridezillas for WE TV; season two of The Exterminators for A&E, and the first season of Mall Cops; Mall of America for TLC. The quintessentially American subject matter and locations vary from the major US cities to America’s heartlands, but were all researched and originated from September Film’s UK headquarters.
Or international producers will bring a successful format from their own country and re-format it for American television, regardless of whether they have a US base. There is a hunger for other people’s proven product. Success in an overseas territory increases the odds of it working in the US marketplace, although it may be almost unrecognisable once the format is made user-friendly to the American viewer.
Translation into English from another language is not a barrier, even though nuances are often lost along the way. In 1999, Big Brother first appeared on the Veronica TV Channel in The Netherlands before becoming a smash hit on US TV. Since then, overseas successes like Survivor on NBC and American Idol on Fox have gone on to become the top-rated series on American television for an entire season.
The biggest battleground is over rights. It is increasingly difficult to win any IP from US nets for your idea unless you have first produced it outside the US and it has been successful enough for them to only buy a US license. This is how to hit the jackpot. RDF Media have built a major American business off the back of Wife Swap, and Shed Media from Supernanny.
International formats like these lend themselves to rights retention more than indigenous American docudramas which are character and location specific. While they’ll readily license an international entertainment format, US nets are generally only interested in fully funding original reality soaps, and keeping as many rights as they can. It is hard to be more than a producer for hire without a hit overseas format. Otherwise, you must build your business on volume orders to maximise production and executive producer fees.
American popular culture, for so long resident only in Hollywood movies, is now alive and well and living in an explosion of new reality entertainment that unites a geographically and culturally diverse people, and confirms their sense of collective identity. For the overseas producer, a hit reality show in the US has become The Holy Grail.