Sunday, October 23, 2011

The TV Format Marketplace

Most people don’t realize how international TV truly is. Until the last week, I didn’t realize the overlaps that exist between the programming in different countries. I knew that there were a few shows with multiple national versions, like X Factor and So You Think You Can Dance. But I had always thought those were exceptions, not norms. In fact, it is very common for shows to be sold either as the original production, with or without dubbing, or as a format. A format is the premise of a show that can then be remade to adapt to another culture or country.

The other surprising thing to me is that the US doesn’t really dominate this business. Although the ownership of the global media system is increasingly based in the US, it seems the US is not the biggest player in the TV format game. The UK easily wins that title, according to the Format Recognition and Protection Association, FRAPA. They released a report in 2009 that showed that the UK led in the number of formats exported, followed by the US and then the Netherlands. I was also surprised by how many show formats the US imports, which was 67 between 2006 and 2008.

Reality TV, competition shows and game shows are the easiest and cheapest to adapt, and so are the most common types of shows to be sold as formats. But according to FRAPA, the sale of telenovelas and dramas are increasing. Some popular shows the US has gotten from the UK include Hell’s Kitchen, the Office, Dancing with the Stars, Trading Spaces, American Idol, Prime Suspect, All in the Family, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, What Not to Wear, Whose Line Is it Anyway and Wife Swap.

There’s even a conference where programs and formats are bought and sold, called MIPTV. According to a Guardian article, they literally trade in television shows to market them in new countries. A director of global TV distribution for one of the companies, ITV Studios, Tobi de Graaff is quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Take what's successful about the show but don't ignore that you are dealing with different cultures and make the right twists to make it feel extremely home-grown and natural." 

And sometimes a show does that very well and succeeds and other times it doesn’t. For instance, Skins is a very popular British show about a group of teens and deals with controversial and racy topics. MTV used the format and remade it as a US show and it completely flopped. For me watching it, it just didn’t make sense and was too outrageous and obviously most Americans would agree, since it was quickly canceled.

A British show I loved is My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. It features members of the Irish Traveller community during big events such as weddings and First Communions. It’s fascinating because everything is so over the top and it also portrays some of the most interesting aspects of their culture like the young age of brides at the weddings and the relationship between men and women. It was a huge success in the UK and it was also broadcast in the US and did extremely well here. When it was rebroadcast in the US in its original format, it was on TLC and TLC was advertising to find US gypsy families for a US version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I personally hope it happens because I loved watching the first series of this guilty pleasure, but it would also be really interesting to see if that kind of show can make the transition and appeal to a mass audience like the original. 


  1. Jessica, this is a really interesting post. I particularly appreciate your research and links. I think it would be interesting to compare original vs adapted television shows in a country. I say this because I watch the X factor (UK edition) and have been hooked since I saw it in England in 2009. But I can't seem to get into the US version.

    I also think it depends on the type of show, in regards to whether it makes in a country or not. Take for example, The Office. It was a pretty big success when it first came out, up until Steve Carell left (yes, I still can't get over it). But when I tried watching the original UK version, I couldn't get pasted the first episode, mostly because the comedy just wasn't to my liking. So I think you're right in the respect that sometimes shows can thrive or flop for unknown reasons, but other times it really depends on the type of show and whether audiences (global and nationwide) can connect and relate to the show on some level.

  2. Right Fatemeh, it is interesting post. Thanks to Jessica :) We also have a Korean version of American Idol (or X factors) which is called as 'Super Star K.' It is world-wide trend to broadcasting the 'reality show' these days, However, in Korea, the original version of reality show rarely broadcasted on the public broadcast networks. This is due to, I believe, cultural differences and governmental control to protect the Korean broadcasting system.

    Like which type of show decides the success of it, culture affects a lot to makes the show in a country. I watched a hollywood movie with other Americans. The interesting thing here we laughed in different scene. While Americans thaught interesting scenes, most Koreans did not agree. After the movie, we just concluded this is because of cultural differences.