How to turn a hit TV show into an international success

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, The Brazilian version of UK reality TV programme Come Dine With Me is presented by a puppet parrot

If you happen to switch on the TV in Brazil then you might come across a four-hour live talk show presented by a popular celebrity and her puppet parrot. The programme includes pre-recorded video clips, which the parrot and presenter then discuss.

So far, so foreign television.

But what you may well not realise is that these clips are actually the Brazilian version of British reality TV programme Come Dine With Me.

In the UK, the popular programme shows a group of four amateur chefs competing against each other to host a dinner party for each other.

The format "felt particularly British," says Mike Beale, head of global development at ITV Studios, the company behind the programme.

Yet when the south American country bought the local rights from ITV Studios the programme changed pretty dramatically.

Brazil is just one example of how hit game shows, reality shows and dramas produced in one country are being bought and adapted for scores of countries around the world in a global trade worth billions of pounds a year.

Image source, Mongol TV
Image caption, The reality cooking show Come Dine With Me has been adapted in more than 40 markets, including, most recently, Mongolia

Since Come Dine With Me began in 2005, local variations of the show have been produced in more than 40 countries.

When the format was sold to France, the producers eliminated the tongue-in-cheek social commentary and turned it into a straightforward cooking competition.

"It was about how does food taste, not who has the nicest home or who gave the best entertainment," says Mr Beale.

The programme's global expansion is a great example of the television formats industry which has grown rapidly since the late 1990s.

In Europe alone the market was estimated to be worth $2.9bn (£2.2bn; 2.5bn euros) in 2013, but the industry has become increasingly competitive as a growing number of countries produce their own formats, challenging top exporters such as the UK.

Major industry

Major networks are also struggling to create global hits like they once did, while most of the really big formats on TV, such as Masterchef and Big Brother, are decades old.

Image source, ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Image caption, Your Face Sounds Familiar, screened on ITV, is based on a Spanish talent show

BBC Worldwide is behind the formats Strictly Come Dancing - produced internationally as Dancing With the Stars - and Bake Off, which have been adapted in 54 and 25 international countries, respectively.

Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Worldwide, says the most successful global formats tend to be based around "universal themes" that viewers anywhere can relate to, such as cooking, dating or dancing.

"They also have really identifiable elements so you can distinguish them from other shows and they have to answer an audience need," she says.

"At the moment there is a real trend for warmth, and the feel-good factor so shows like Bake Off and Pitch Battle are doing well - although there was a time when shows with a meaner edge seemed to do well."

Outsourcing the risk

Foreign formats are attractive to networks because they are programme ideas that have already been shown to work, says Ed Waller, an analyst at media research firm C21.

In essence, networks are "outsourcing risk" to countries such as the UK or US, which may have better funded broadcasters with stronger track records of developing successful shows, he says.

Image source, BBC Worldwide
Image caption, Strictly Come Dancing has been produced in 54 markets including Brazil

However, Mr Waller says that while in the 1990s and 2000s there were relatively few suppliers of ideas for international formats, that has now "completely changed".

"You have many more networks developing for the international market and creating their own intellectual property," he says.

"As a result many more formats now change hands - although they tend not to reach as many countries or stay on our screens for as long."

Image source, SAT.1/Ralf Jürgens
Image caption, The German version of The Great Bake Off has been very popular

New countries have entered the fray too. The UK has long been the world's top exporter of ideas, followed by the US and the Netherlands, but countries such as Scandinavia, South Korea, Israel and Argentina have all become serious players too.

Recent examples include the South Korean dramas The Good Doctor and Somewhere Between, which were sold to major US network ABC last year.

And Spanish talent show Tu Cara me Suena has been adapted in 40 countries, including the UK, where it airs as Your Face Sounds Familiar.

Cultural tweaks

Mr Beale says production companies generally try to keep formats recognisably the same as they move from country to country, so they keep their "special sauce".

However, formats are commonly changed to reflect budget sizes or local customs, says professor Jean Chalaby, an expert in formats at City University.

Image source, SAT.1/Ralf Jürgens
Image caption, A contestant on the German version of Bake Off made a cake out of meat

For instance, talent shows in countries like Spain and Italy are often stretched out to last three or four hours while they might last only an hour in the UK or US.

The judges on such programmes also tend to be less cruel in smaller countries, such as New Zealand, than in bigger ones like the UK or US.

"The humiliating first rounds are taken off in smaller countries as there is more of a sense of a community," he says.

Image source, ITV America
Image caption, Gordon Ramsay will open a Hell's Kitchen restaurant in Las Vegas this year

Global Trade

More from the BBC's series taking an international perspective on trade:

Of course, formats don't always work when adapted for new markets, with comedy and drama being particularly hard to pull off.

Some ideas simply don't translate, as seen with the controversial teen drama Skins. It lasted seven series in the UK but just one when it was adapted for MTV in the US.

Building a brand

Mr Beale says that what all production companies want is to create "evergreen" formats that can be brought back time and time again.

Such programmes become global brands, offering recurring royalties and spin-off opportunities such as events and merchandise.

Gordon Ramsay's new Hell's Kitchen Restaurant, due to open in Las Vegas this year, is one such example.

Creating such hits has become harder in the current climate.

"If a network doesn't like a cooking programme they just go for another one. It's a buyers' market," says Mr Beale.

Another problem producers face is copycatting as it is very hard to protect a format's intellectual property.

The best protection for this, says Mr Beale, is having a market-leading idea to begin with so anything that comes behind you "won't look as good".

"You've got to be pragmatic".

"We're in a global society and you have to accept that people will copy you. You just need to become the best very quickly," he adds.

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