Kidnets go local on the cheap with formats

There is an irresistible logic to acquiring television formats from overseas markets. Not only do you get a proven proposition that looks like you thought of it, but the development work done by the format owner will bring down the cost...
January 1, 2000

There is an irresistible logic to acquiring television formats from overseas markets. Not only do you get a proven proposition that looks like you thought of it, but the development work done by the format owner will bring down the cost of producing the show.

Not all formats translate successfully. But the strike rate in adult formats has been high enough to make kidnets and producers take notice. Today, adapting formats for children is a fast-emerging alternative to originating shows-although it is too early to say how successful the market will prove to be.

There are no set rules about what a format sale consists of. It can involve the loan of the concept, animated characters, strands within a magazine show, production and commercial expertise, the set or, in some cases, the audience.

Southern Star’s Michael Boughen has produced thousands of hours of kids and adult entertainment for Australian networks. He is now developing the second series of Y?, a science-based show for eight- to 13-year-olds that combines studio-based demonstrations with location reports in which kids investigate science in everyday situations.

Boughen believes Y? is a strong format proposition. The look of the show is relatively straightforward-and therefore easy to replicate inexpensively. But the hard work is ‘choosing experiments, finding expert advice and conducting successful scientific demonstrations.’

According to Boughen, having a format to provide input on these things can have real benefits to producers. ‘It takes the stress out of a series when you know things will go as planned and you will come in on budget.’ For licensees who need it, Southern Star will share the fruits of its extensive research via advice by fax or e-mail.

Meticulous research is also evident in Top 10 of Everything, a format produced by United Film & TV Productions for ITV from an idea based on a Dorling Kindersley book. United head of children’s Dan Maddicott says he can provide buyers with ‘graphics, a production bible and advice on how to compile top tens.’ So far, he has had expressions of interest from the U.S.

There are a number of variations on the classic format model. At Disney Channel in Europe, the popular show Art Attack, which began life on the U.K.’s ITV, has been adapted for each of Disney’s four main language services in the U.K., Italy, Spain and Germany. Production costs are kept under control by using a single set in the U.K.’s Maidstone Studios. Different hosts are flown in, with each version shot back-to-back by producer Media Merchants. Art Attack has already proven the success of this approach by winning a 40% share on Spain’s Tele Cinco. To date, Disney has made 52 episodes for each territory and plans to produce 26 more eps per territory next year.

Mike Watts, VP and managing director, production at Walt Disney Television International, has two new pilots in the works for kids ages 10 to 11 as well. The first, to be made by Action Time, will begin production at the end of January. Watts says the other is a music-based show, but he is not yet ready to divulge the producer’s identity. Although the long-term intention is to reversion the new formats for all Disney Channel territories in Europe, the first step is to get the format right in one market.

‘If the pilots work well, we will probably go to a run of about 10 to 13 programs in a single market like the U.K.,’ says Watts. ‘The difference between Art Attack and these shows is that Art Attack came with seven years of accumulated experience. With the new shows, we have to ensure we get the core of the show right in one market first-then look at what translates.’ Even further down the line, Watts does not rule out sensible windowing of the shows on European terrestrial networks.

While good ideas are paramount, the cost of studio design can be the deciding factor for buyers. If broadcasters are looking for something that is high-quality but cost-effective, they will balk at building an expensive set.

Boughen encountered this problem with A*mazing, a spectacular-looking kids show developed and distributed by Southern Star, featuring teams from two primary schools competing in an elaborate treasure hunt played out in a giant maze. ‘People get the idea and like it. But the set scares most people off,’ says Boughen. By contrast, Southern Star’s relatively inexpensive kids format Time Masters, in which two teams battle it out in an adventure playground via physically challenging games and general knowledge questions, has been sold as an option to Israel and parts of Asia, says Boughen.

BBC Worldwide America’s headline titles at NATPE underline how broadly defined formats can be. Susanna Pollack, director of co-production and sales for BBCWWA children’s and drama programming, will promote three properties called Dinosaur Detectives, Dog & Dinosaur and Insides Out (see ‘Tween formats’ sidebar).

The first, Dinosaur Detectives, is a 13-part series for kids on BBC 1, inspired by the prime-time factual smash hit Walking with Dinosaurs. The kid format spin-off is hosted by an adult in a futuristic studio environment with location reports from children in the U.K., U.S., Australia and South Africa who had been sent out to unearth clues about how dinosaurs lived. Excerpts from Walking with Dinosaurs are also included.

Pollack believes the format can be broken up for sale in a number of ways. For example, a second version was made using a robot as host-facilitating sales in territories that don’t want the British host. Alternatively, broadcasters could take the host robot segments and shoot their own location footage. Presumably, for the right price, they could also shoot their own host in the Detectives set.

Pollack is keen to build the Detectives brand in its own right. ‘We hope to use it to explore themes like space or marine exploration.’ The aim would be to link projects to landmark programming, such as a big-budget series about oceans currently in production at the BBC Natural History Unit.

The second project, Dog & Dinosaur, stars a pair of real-time animated characters created by San Francisco-based Protozoa for U.K. digital channel BBC Choice. The Dog & Dinosaur leads act as joint hosts on the BBC Choice children’s block. Pollack wants to promote the characters and the technology behind them to broadcasters looking for original ways to make magazine or compilation shows.

A classic example of how animated characters can be used as part of a format deal is Denmark-based ITE’s Hugo the Troll. Hugo is the star of an interactive game that can be played by viewers at home using their phones. He was first seen on Denmark’s TV 2 and has since been sold to 30 territories including Germany, Thailand, Russia and Taiwan.

Typically, Hugo is picked up for use as part of a children’s weekend magazine format, says ITE managing director Jesper Helbrandt. However, sometimes he is stripped across weekday afternoons. ‘Hugo is very flexible and easy to adapt to local language and cultures. We provide software, hardware and scripts.’

Almost invariably, Hugo boosts channel ratings. In Slovenia, Hugo became the number-one entertainment show. In Brazil, he triggered 1.8 million callers a day when introduced on TV Gazeta. Helbrandt is now working on a Hugo movie and marketing a more gruesome format for teens called Throut & Neck. At NATPE, he will also unveil a new interactive format targeting a similar age range to Hugo (see ‘Tween formats’ on page 74).

Given the diverse incarnations formats can take, there are few age demographics that are not receptive to some sort of reversioned programming.

In preschool, for example, Children’s Television Workshop has, during the course of three decades, adapted Sesame Street for Germany (Sesamstrasse), Russia (Ulitsa Sesam), China (Zhima Jie), Israel (Rechov Sumsum) and Palestine (Shara’a Simsim). During that time, CTW has built up a trust factor that is now allowing it to develop new formats for foreign markets. It made preschool show Big Bag for Canal J in France and ITV in the U.K. and also cracked the Chinese market with two education-based formats. The first, I Love Science, is made with China Education Television. Risky Numbers, a math-based kids game show format, is co-produced with Shanghai TV. Significantly, it is being funded by U.S. advertiser Procter & Gamble.

XL Entertainment also suc-

ceeded in cracking the pre-

school format game with Jamboree-a show that

has been commis-

sioned up to series

four (52 x 10 min-

utes) by ITV. XL managing director Jim Brathwaite says, ‘TVOntario saw the show and realized they could take key segments from it and shoot their own host-led pieces to camera.’

While TVOntario has taken the rights to North America, Brathwaite reports strong interest from Israel and South Africa. ‘It is easy to edit-which means broadcasters can take advantage of our huge investment in the middle section of the show.’ Jamboree is supported by a comprehensive Web site, and Brathwaite expects on-line content will also be a key element of Jamboree format discussions.

Formats are also hitting the teen audience. U.S.-based distributor SPI is currently marketing a show for 13- to 21-year-olds called Real Life 101, which is made in the U.S. by Sebastian International Entertainment. In the last two years, it has cleared 80% of U.S. cable households in syndication.

Real Life 101 is a fast-paced format that gets under the skin of a wide range of career paths from beekeeping to medicine to shoe design to law. Typically, a 26-minute episode looks at three professions and is fronted by a group of young hosts from an external location such as a Lego factory or Las Vegas.

SPI’s sales and acquisitions chief Jodi Ann Heller says the show, which costs around US$40,000 to US$50,000 per episode, is inspiring interest-particularly from the Far East. SPI provides a comprehensive production bible, consultancy and advice on how to raise the budget. ‘You have to be prepared to be flexible with the format length and with the way you raise money,’ says Heller. ‘In some territories, broadcast budgets are tight, so you need to look to corporate sponsors to help meet the budget.’

This is a critical observation in the format game. In many cases, there is no preset production budget. Format sellers start by asking what a broadcaster is looking for and what they can afford. Then they try to make something to measure. Often this will involve talking to advertisers seeking to break into new markets.

This attempt to match up slots and budgets with formats is evident at the leading format distributors-where there is a trend towards adapting adult shows for kids audiences.

Columbia TriStar International Television’s VP of international program development and format sales, Paul Gilbert, oversees about 80 formats. In his experience, ‘a lot of shows can be remade for kids.’ Major breakthroughs have been a junior version of Wheel of Fortune called Wheel 2000 and a junior Jeopardy called Jep. The former aired on CBS for a season and is now launching on Turkey’s Canal D. It is also lined up for South Africa. The latter airs on Sony’s cable and satellite distributed Game Show Network in the U.S.

Gilbert says kid versions need some tweaking to reflect the audience, which often means adding physical games and gimmicks that appeal to kids. In Wheel 2000, for example, the wheel spinner is a woman dressed up in a wired suit to create a computer-generated animated character called Cyberlucy.

Other companies have dabbled with adult-to-kid formats. Pearson producer Dave Morley recently made a junior version of the Channel 5 hit show Night Fever, a karaoke game based on a format owned by Case Productions. ‘We had noticed that a lot of kids were watching the show,’ says Morley, ‘and my 12-year-old daughter Olivia suggested we should do a junior version.’

The resulting show, which sports the same name as the original, features U.K. kids’ celebrities and rated as well as the adult version. ‘It was like being at a Wembley concert,’ says Morley. ‘The kids went wild. From a producer’s point of view, the major considerations with such a young audience were medical and security.’

Southern Star’s Boughen has also pursued this path. He acquired the Australian rights to a format called Wipeout from Action Time and made 250 eps for kids. In this show, three players solve puzzles displayed on a giant video wall, facing the prospect of having their winnings wiped out with just one one wrong answer.

Action Time itself brought in former Disney Channel U.K. creative head Amelia Johnstone to ramp up its kids business-and a great deal of her emphasis is on formats.

Although she is not yet ready to reveal specific details, Johnstone says she has 12 new formats ranging from ‘preschool to comedy game shows aimed at audiences up to age 13.’ She also has kids formats like Travel Bug, Crazy Cottage and an elaborate format based on the classic Peter Pan story, still nameless at press time.

U.K. indie Zenith is also beginning to look seriously at the kid format business, says marketing chief Martin Hersov. A major impetus for expansion is the company’s recent acquisition of the international book publishing group Two-Can. ‘We are talking to a range of broadcasters about the way a partnership might work,’ says Hersov.

Hersov stresses that the company is looking at ways of licensing out segments from its Saturday morning magazine show SMTV:Live, which airs on ITV. ‘There are sketches, games and characters in SMTV:Live that we believe are eminently formattable,’ he says. ‘We are talking to distributors about what elements might be developed into franchises.’

Most of the players in the kid format game are convinced that the need for formats is set to grow significantly. ‘The digital boom means there are more and more children’s outlets requiring new sources of cost-effective and proven programming,’ says the BBCWWA’s Pollack. ‘Good formats will certainly have a role to play in meeting that demand.’

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