For­mat wars are where it’s at in TV pro­duc­tion, with huge prof­its up for grabs first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

THE year’s big new shows have fi­nally ar­rived — An­gry Boys, Cloud­street, Down­ton Abbey, The Kennedys, Pa­per Gi­ants, Small Time Gang­ster — and Nine’s sur­prise doc­u­men­tary hit In Their Foot­steps. Some of them still have plea­sur­able episodes in store but, hap­pily, this time of the year is no tele­vi­sion viewer’s win­ter of dis­con­tent as they fin­ish up.

The fa­mil­iar, lo­calised, mon­ster in­ter­na­tional TV re­al­ity shows have re­turned, pro­vid­ing an en­ter­tain­ing study in how the glob­al­i­sa­tion of TV for­mats is ad­vanc­ing and how these pro­grams rule the TV land­scape.

In some cases the par­ent shows are also be­ing broad­cast (on pay-TV es­pe­cially), so fans can ra­tion out some dis­cre­tionary view­ing by crit­i­cally ob­serv­ing the flex­i­bil­ity em­ployed as far as the choice and ar­range­ment of el­e­ments in the adap­ta­tion is con­cerned.

It’s great fun, for ex­am­ple, com­par­ing the use of the voiceover nar­ra­tion in the English and Aus­tralian ver­sions of that bril­liant, of­ten hys­ter­i­cal re­al­ity cook­ing show Come Dine with Me, or jeer­ing at the stodgy, sweaty pre­sen­ters of the long-run­ning Bri­tish MasterChef, which ap­pears like TV from a par­al­lel uni­verse com­pared with the lo­cal jug­ger­naut.

For­mats of all kinds — not just re­al­ity shows — were once a genre held in low es­teem, but these days their adap­ta­tion is rarely a sim­ple, facile rep­e­ti­tion of the orig­i­nal. Some, such as MasterChef, are bril­liantly re-imag­ined (a beloved ex­pres­sion in for­mat land) and oth­ers, such as Dancing with the Stars and SBS’s sur­pris­ing Let­ters and Num­bers (not a re­al­ity show but a fas­ci­nat­ing and suc­cess­ful adap­ta­tion in its own right), are more sub­tly al­tered, their aes­thetic com­po­nents art­fully nudged to cater to the lo­cal mar­ket.

In­ter­est­ingly two of the crit­i­cally ap­plauded new shows, the Bri­tish block­buster drama Down­ton Abbey and for­mat­ted doco se­ries In Their Foot­steps, hy­bridise other for­mats quite shame­lessly, seem­ingly with the bless­ing of the orig­i­nal copy­right hold­ers.

Down­ton Abbey is a clever re­work­ing of Robert Alt­man’s movie Gos­ford Park and the hit 1970s Bri­tish se­ries Up­stairs, Down­stairs. And In Their Foot­steps, part re­al­ity-style per­sonal jour­ney and part mil­i­tary his­tory, is highly rem­i­nis­cent of SBS’s en­light­en­ing ex­plo­ration of ge­neal­ogy, Who Do You Think You Are?

This, of course, is it­self based on the orig­i­nal hugely suc­cess­ful BBC se­ries, which has been in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar since 2004 when it first aired in Bri­tain. There are ver­sions in Canada, Ire­land, Swe­den, South Africa and a gushy Amer­i­can adap­ta­tion, pro­duced by for­mer Friends star Lisa Kudrow.

When I asked the Aus­tralian pro­ducer Celia Tate about the sim­i­lar­i­ties she sim­ply laughed and wished the Nine show luck. ‘‘ I envy their rat­ings; if Chan­nel Nine took our show I reckon we’d rate around the 11/ mil­lion,’’ she said a lit­tle wist­fully.

‘‘ For­mats are trad­able in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, al­though the legal en­force­abil­ity of the shape and con­tent of a tele­vi­sion pro­gram is pretty shaky — think of Back­yard Blitz gazump­ing Ground Force,’’ says Frances Bon­ner, who lec­tures in film and TV at the Univer­sity of Queens­land. Many threats of legal ac­tion have been made, Bon­ner points out, and very, very few cases have been brought, let alone won, given the prob­lem­atic na­ture of ac­tu­ally prov­ing in­fringe­ments.

‘‘ The trade in for­mats is a very large one and some of the most pop­u­lar shows of the last decade or two have been made as a re­sult,’’ she says. Most have orig­i­nated from Bri­tain, their ex­port sig­nif­i­cantly bol­ster­ing the na­tional econ­omy re­cently, with Lon­don the head­quar­ters for many large global pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Al­l3Me­dia, Shine, Fre­man­tle and Ce­lador.

‘‘ Usu­ally what a pur­chaser gets is rights to a name and a ‘ bi­ble’ — a doc­u­ment pro­vid­ing de­tails of the show, not just its struc­ture and copies of pro­grams but also de­mo­graph­ics on au­di­ences, what to look for in per­son­nel; how to make the show, in ef­fect,’’ Bon­ner adds. It is be­lieved this in­for­ma­tion is what makes it worth pay­ing for rather than rip­ping it off, though of course both oc­cur.

‘‘ Gen­er­ally a for­mat is ef­fec­tively pro­vid­ing a broad­caster with the abil­ity to make the pro­gram; yes, they could copy the pro­gram, but they run the risk of get­ting it wrong and wast­ing their time and money,’’ says Michael Hirsh of Work­ing Dog, pro­duc­ers of the im­pro­vi­sa­tional com­edy for­mat Thank God You’re Here, shown in Aus­tralia on Ten and now sold in 20 coun­tries.

‘‘ It’s eas­ier to pur­chase the for­mat and you have the real deal. Cre­at­ing pro­grams is painful and takes time; a for­mat can be the magic pill for a broad­caster,’’ Hirsh con­tin­ues. ‘‘ I have a the­ory that if you just copy a pro­gram you don’t know why things hap­pen and un­der­stand the pro­gram, there­fore your copy pro­gram will not sur­vive in

the medium to long term,’’ he sug­gests.

For­mat is an odd term — Latin in deriva­tion, it had its be­gin­nings in the print­ing in­dus­try — that sug­gests more than any­thing else an in­dus­trial con­no­ta­tion: some­thing that can be copied. A for­mat is the ba­sis for some­thing new, but which is still ba­si­cally the same. But these days ev­ery­one in TV spends wak­ing nights ei­ther dream­ing new ones up or de­vis­ing in­ge­nious ways of adapt­ing what is al­ready suc­cess­ful.

Once peo­ple talked ideas; now they write for­mats, flood­ing the net­work pro­gram­mers with end­less sug­ges­tions for com­bi­na­tions of games, quizzes, cook­ing shows, ren­o­va­tion and makeover se­ries all dressed up in the con­ven­tions of re­al­ity TV or ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary. (Pay-TV’s Life­style Food chan­nel has just com­mis­sioned an eight-part se­ries to take us be­hind the doors of Aus­tralian bak­ery Planet Cake in the hope of em­u­lat­ing the glob­ally suc­cess­ful Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes.)

‘‘ A suc­cess­ful for­mat is the holy grail for pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies and for net­works,’’ says Vin­cent Beasley, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for en­ter­tain­ment at SBS, who looks af­ter for­mats such as RocKwiz, Let­ters and Num­bers and Who Do You Think You Are, im­por­tant and pop­u­lar shows for the pub­lic broad­caster.

‘‘ If you want to make money, it’s the best way be­cause as a pro­duc­tion com­pany you can sell the prod­uct around the world and con­tinue to make money from it; and for net­works they can look on the shelf and find a prod­uct that’s been tried and tested and [they] don’t have to take any real risk.’’

Of course lo­cal adap­ta­tions of in­ter­na­tional shows have some­times proved to be ele­phant’s grave­yards in the re­cent past, some for­mats dy­ing al­most as fast as they ar­rived in town. Taken Out, Iron Chef Aus­tralia, Sur­vivor Aus­tralia and the first se­ries of The X Fac­tor were among them.

Then there was the Aus­tralian Queer Eye; and with deep sleep ther­apy you might just re­call Ten’s game show The Con Test, hosted by Andrew G and the sassy, lippy Brigitte Du­c­los, which was a weird cross be­tween a quiz and poker. But gen­er­ally the suc­cess­ful for­mats dom­i­nate our TV, the lat­est be­ing Seven’s thought­fully pro­duced The Amaz­ing Race Aus­tralia, a hit af­ter only a few weeks.

The orig­i­nal Emmy-win­ning show has been around since 2001 as re­al­ity TV’s ver­sion of Around the World in 80 Days. Now air­ing on Seven’s dig­i­tal chan­nel 7mate, it’s worth an oc­ca­sional look for an en­ter­tain­ing com­par­i­son. This warhorse from ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Jerry Bruck­heimer and Bert van Mun­ster has proved to be among the most durable of re­al­ity for­mats.

It’s al­ways been a se­ries that hates slow­ing down, or even chang­ing gears too of­ten, as its teams of driv­ers head off each year on the lat­est mad­cap cross-coun­try ad­ven­ture, though they must be run­ning out of con­ti­nents to ter­rify.

The lo­cal ver­sion, with its high-end pro­duc­tion val­ues and en­gag­ing larger-thanlife cast, sur­prised me and should at­tract a com­pletely new au­di­ence with­out dis­ap­point­ing fans of the Amer­i­can ver­sion.

Like the orig­i­nal, it’s a slickly pro­duced, lav­ish and tech­ni­cally mind-bog­gling com­bi­na­tion of global trav­el­ogue, on-the-road thrills and in­ter­per­sonal sit­com.

(The orig­i­nal show’s di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Per Lars­son, acted as hands-on­pro­ducer for its cre­ators dur­ing Seven’s pre­pro­duc­tion, en­sur­ing they got the mul­ti­ple cam­era aes­thetic right.)

There’s also an en­ter­tain­ing touch of psy­chodrama in the dy­nam­ics of group in­ter­ac­tion and the lo­cal pro­duc­ers have adopted all the Bruck­heimer trade­marks: rapid-fire edit­ing, stream­lined sto­ries and slick ac­tion. It’s less bru­tally com­pet­i­tive and abra­sive than the orig­i­nal, though, and some of the couples are gen­uinely amus­ing in a rough di­a­mond, look-I’m-on-TV kind of way.

The nice touches of psy­chodrama make it of­ten ab­sorb­ing in that TV re­al­ity way and, as al­ways, it’s easy to find a team to iden­tify with and bar­rack for, and at least one car­load of idiots to de­test.

As you would ex­pect from a Bruck­heimer show (he also pro­duces the CSI fran­chise), Amaz­ing Race’s pro­duc­ers are cre­ative, build­ing chal­lenges that take into ac­count where these con­tes­tants are and the peo­ple and cul­ture around them. They all face the show’s fa­mous de­vices: road­blocks, de­tours, in­ter­sec­tions, fast for­wards, yields and speed bumps, in­volv­ing weird tasks.

Mas­ter­ing them re­quires some de­gree of cal­cu­la­tion, rid­dle and puz­zle solv­ing and some fa­mil­iar­ity with the land­marks and cul­tures of the coun­tries they tra­verse. Part of the show’s schtick, though, is the way these ob­struc­tions can cause won­der­ful com­edy from a bunch of Aus­tralians who know lit­tle about the rest of the world. There’s a sim­i­lar se­ri­ous cringe com­edy of em­bar­rass­ment when our con­tes­tants treat the lo­cals with a level of con­de­scen­sion that would make even Chris Lilley blush.

It’s a sign of the in­creas­ing struc­tural ma­tu­rity of our TV that we no longer need to fol­low slav­ishly the con­ven­tions of over­seascon­ceived for­mats but gen­er­ally can work in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the cre­ators. Lo­cal pro­duc­tion is now so suc­cess­ful that, some ex­tent, all for­mats have to be

to orig­i­nalised. They sim­ply would not work with­out a high de­gree of cre­ative lo­cal in­put.

TV is in­creas­ingly global, framed and struc­tured by in­ter­na­tional con­texts. The critic Meaghan Morris once called this a kind of ‘‘ pos­i­tive un­o­rig­i­nal­ity’’ and it’s noth­ing to be ashamed of these days.

Suc­cess­ful pro­duc­ers say it’s a lit­tle like McDon­ald’s or Star­bucks. The trick is to ex­tract the in­tegrity of the orig­i­nal show and dress it with the idio­syn­cra­sies and colour of lo­cal cul­ture, some­how giv­ing it the right spin to make it feel home-grown and nat­u­ral.

It may be, as Bon­ner sug­gests, as sim­ple as the se­lec­tion of the con­tes­tants and pre­sen­ters and the stereo­types or cul­tural specifics they rep­re­sent. Or it may be in the way a new vi­sion and struc­ture is some­how grafted on to the orig­i­nal for­mat, as hap­pened so mag­i­cally in MasterChef.

I can still re­mem­ber sitting with Ten’s pro­gram­ming boss David Mott out­side the first rowdy press launch two years ago. We were in the gar­den of the show’s ‘‘ hero lo­ca­tion’’, the cav­ernous MasterChef kitchen in Syd­ney’s Alexan­dria, in which the 20 fi­nal­ists, sur­vivors of an epic au­di­tion process, were cook­ing off the party food.

‘‘ There is sim­ply noth­ing more ex­cit­ing than watch­ing peo­ple chase their dream,’’ the vol­u­ble ex­ec­u­tive kept say­ing and, with­out a sign of anx­i­ety, man­aged to use the word ‘‘ up­scale’’ in a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of gram­mat­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions.

‘‘ This is pos­i­tive up­scale TV, up­scal­ing the orig­i­nal show into some­thing, well, re­ally up­scale,’’ he said. He gave me the feel­ing that Ten be­lieved TV was rein­vent­ing it­self by in­fus­ing this old cook­ing for­mat with the con­fes­sional sta­ples of re­al­ity TV, that it was a kind of ther­apy for the be­lea­guered nation. And of course he was right.

These for­mat­ted shows, orig­i­nally from some­where else, are en­ter­tain­ing in the cathar­tic sense and have many Aus­tralians deeply in­volved in their out­comes and what hap­pens to their char­ac­ters.

They con­struct highly de­tailed, of­ten fan­tas­tic, nar­ra­tive worlds for their char­ac­ters and an al­most science fic­tion land­scape full of larger-than-life be­ings, a whole uni­verse of the mind.

But who knows if any of it is ac­tu­ally real. The Amaz­ing Race Aus­tralia, Mon­day, 8.30, Seven

The Amaz­ing Race Aus­tralia

Come Dine with Me, left

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