FORMAT SALES, INTERNATIONAL

In the process of international format sales the basic format of a programme is sold (or licensed) to a foreign production company to enable them to create a domestic version of the product. This practice, while more and more common, is hardly new.

In U.S. television's infancy it was common for successful radio shows to transfer to television (a practice incidentally that still takes place in the United Kingdom). The most popular of these early radio to TV transfers were game shows and human interest shows such as This Is Your Life which made it's U.S. TV debut in 1952 and Candid Camera which was adapted from radio's Candid Microphone in 1948. This initiative demonstrated the durability and flexibility of certain formats and alerted programme creators to the feasibility of secondary usage of their creations. The rapid rise in popularity of television in the United States and the proliferation of networks to serve the public produced an ever increasing demand for programming so that, even by the early 1950s, a great number of formats had been tried and tested. The BBC Television service in Britain may have started three years before its U.S. counterpart but the U.S. service grew far more quickly (and didn't have a five year hiatus because of World War II, as did the BBC). The U.S. systems, consequently, were far more advanced in the areas of programme formats by the early 1950s when the BBC began to purchase successful formats from the United States. A year after What's My Line debuted on CBS in 1950, the format rights were bought by Maurice Winnick for the BBC. The show proved as successful in the United Kingdom as in the United States. The original format for What's My Line had been developed by former radio announcer Mark Goodson and former radio writer Bill Todman who had formed the Goodson-Todman Production Company in 1946. The Goodson-Todman company became the acknowledged masters of format development and created a slew of formats that were to sell successfully in many territories and be revived domestically on occasion, especially during the game show revival of the 1970s. (Other successful game show format holders include Chuck Barris and Merv Griffin.) Formats that sold in English speaking territories would often spawn shows with the same name as the original, hence The Price is Right and Beat the Clock are titles as famous in the United Kingdom as in the United States. On other occasions the names of the new shows differ from the originals: in the United Kingdom, The Match Game is known as Blankety Blank and Family Feud is retitled Family Fortune.

With the United State's head start on format development expertise it was quite a while before the trend was reversed and the United States started buying formats in. The first game show the United Kingdom sold to the United States was Whodunnit in 1979 but in the 1960s another genre proved to be exportable: Comedy.

Given the huge potential financial rewards associated with a successful long-running situation comedy, U.S. producers were quick to exploit series formats that had been hits in the United Kingdom, rationalising that some of them would translate to an American audience. As early as the mid-1960s such experiments were undertaken. At that time film producer Joseph E Levine decided to expand his empire (Embassy Pictures) to include network television and had the idea of acquiring the rights to produce an American version of the runaway U.K. hit sit-com Steptoe and Son. This was an ambitious move as Steptoe and Son was quite extreme, more hard hitting "kitchen-sink" drama than traditional sit-com. But Levine thought the hard edges could be softened enough to make the series palatable for the U.S. audience who, after all, had already demonstrated a willingness to identify with the working class by making The Honeymooners such a success in its time. Beefy film actor Aldo Ray was cast alongside Lee Tracey, but the pilot remained unsold. This remained the case until years later when Norman Lear would produce a successful U.S. version of the series, Sanford and Son. This adaptation came, however, after Lear had already changed the face of the U.S. sit-com genre with another U.K. format buy, Till Death Us Do Part which became the groundbreaking All In The Family.

Lear's success with these format changes gave rise to many similar deals. While many of the attempts at format copying have been failures, there have been notable successes. Man About the House (U.K.) spawned the United States Three's Company, Keep it in the Family translated as Too Close for Comfort, etc. Certain companies (such as D. L. Taffner) specialise in format transfers, knowing enough about both markets to make astute decisions on whether a show would travel. Most successful British sit-coms are scrutinised carefully by U.S. producers and a huge percentage are optioned for a format change. Occasionally the trend occurs in reverse (the U.S. Who's the Boss emerging in the United Kingdom as The Upper Hand, The Golden Girls becoming The Brighton Belles) but this is far rarer, almost certainly because most successful U.S. sit-coms appear in the United Kingdom in their original format. The United States' domination of the entertainment media results in local audiences being au fait with American society and culture and thus more willing and able to consume the original.

-Dick Fiddy

FURTHER READING

Hansen, Eric. "Sitcom Formats Fail to Please on Germany's RTL." Variety (Los Angeles), 29 March 1993.

Johnson, Debra. "Format Fever: The Risks and Rewards." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 23 January 1995.

_______________. "King World International Has Licensed Format Rights to Jeopardy! to Poland's Telewizja Polska." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 23 October 1995.

Tunstall, Jeremy. The Media Are American: Anglo-American Media In The World. London: Constable, 1977.

Wildman, Steven S., and Bruce M. Owen. Video Economics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Williams, Michael. "U.S. Formats Boost Danish Pubcaster." Variety (Los Angeles), 27 April 1992.

 

See also All in the Family; Quiz and Game Shows; Goodson, Mark and Bill Todman; Lear, Norman; Sanford and Son; Steptoe and Son; Till Death Us Do Part