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TV formats for sale: A chance to find ratings gold

By Barry Garron, Special to CNN
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
U.S. TV shows such as
U.S. TV shows such as "American Idol" started out as formats sold to networks after they proved successful in other countries.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 12,000 attendees will examine formats and programs for sale next week at MipTV
  • Format sellers help buyers adapt programs to the viewers in different countries
  • It's a TV business that's been growing since 1951
  • Interactive shows such as Canada's "Recipe to Riches" may start a trend

(CNN) -- Coming soon to your TV: a high-stakes recipe contest for home cooks, a giant boxing glove that knocks players into icy water and challenges carried out entirely in the dark.

Maybe.

These are a few of the television formats for sale next week at MipTV, the world's largest marketplace for TV programming, held in Cannes, France.

Beginning Sunday and for the next three days, about 12,000 attendees will examine the formats and programs of more than 1,200 TV producers, up 25% from last year. For the smart TV executive, it's a chance to find ratings gold.

Some of America's most popular TV shows, including "American Idol," "Dancing With the Stars," "Big Brother," "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent," started out as formats sold to networks after they proved successful in other countries. In addition to the structure of the show, the format seller provides the know-how, helping buyers adapt the program to the unique characteristics of viewers in each country.

It's a business that's been growing since 1951 when "What's My Line?" on CBS was sold to the BBC. And it's gotten bigger every year.

"I think in these times when there is pressure on budgets, people rely on alternative formats because they know they're getting well thought-out programs that have proven their worth in a number of territories," said Trish Kinane, president of worldwide entertainment for London-based FremantleMedia, a world leader in format sales.

FremantleMedia has a huge catalog of TV formats for sale, but at MipTV it will shine a spotlight on "Recipe to Riches," a Canadian production. In that show, home cooks prepare their favorite recipes in a designated category, such as appetizers one week or entrees the next. The day after each show, the winning food item is featured in supermarkets across the country. Shoppers buy and taste the items and then vote for the best one overall.

"It's not just a traditional cooking show," Kinane said. "In Canada, of the top 10 products over the last 10 years, four have come as a result of this show."

Another show on FremantleMedia's menu is "The Boxing Glove," developed by Fuji Television in Japan. Here, contestants stand above a pool of icy water. An enormous boxing glove swings slowly toward them. A TV monitor in the glove shows a question. A correct answer brings the glove to a stop.

In "Total Blackout," contestants are put in a completely dark room and play games, including trying to identify items by touch. The Syfy cable network already bought the show for the United States and will premiere its American version on April 25 with Jaleel White as host.

The event also gives U.S.-based shows a shot at the international market. In a press release, cable network A&E touted "450 hours of new programming for international broadcasters."

"A+E Networks comes to MIP TV with a newly expanded sales staff and a dynamic programming catalog that features some of the highest-(rated) series and formats on U.S. pay TV," Marielle Zuccarelli, managing director for A&E Networks international content distribution, said in the release. "Our lineup is headlined by the epic mega-doc, 'Mankind: The Story of All of Us,' and our hit formats will feature high on the agenda as we aggressively ramp up this area of our business and roll out some of our latest productions."

Game and reality shows have had the greatest success at MipTV, but nothing is guaranteed. The CW's dating show, "Farmer Wants a Wife," and the NBC quiz show "The Weakest Link" failed to win big ratings in the United States despite becoming hits elsewhere.

Comedy and drama formats also are for sale. Over the years, some of America's most beloved scripted shows were conceived elsewhere, then adapted for U.S. viewers. "Till Death Us Do Part" became "All in the Family," "Steptoe and Son" transformed into "Sanford and Son" and "Man About the House" turned into "Three's Company."

More recently, "The Office" was successfully adapted from the British original and gave NBC a hit. Other recent attempts haven't worked out as well. Examples of flops include "Prime Suspect," "Life on Mars," "Wild at Heart," "Life Is Wild," "Kath & Kim," "Eleventh Hour," "Coupling" and "Blackpool" (which became "Viva Laughlin").

"Comedy is very much of its time and often is dependent on the character and the performer," Kinane said. "It's about the zeitgeist. I think comedies will work in the short term, but they're not going to be like 'The Price Is Right.' "

Kinane predicted that interactive shows, such as "Recipe to Riches," where viewers can watch a show and then eat the food the next day, will start a trend among TV format producers. "Viewers love being involved, and this is just going one step further," she said.

Of course, such shows must be taped long before they are aired. "It takes seven months for the supermarket to get the product in stores," she said.

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