Reality coup for American TV

Tue Apr 1, 6:57 AM ET
Bill Keveney USA TODAY

In the amazing reality race, American TV is catching up.

In the early days of the USA's fascination with reality shows, most of the offerings came from countries where the genre was already popular with viewers and formats were well established.

Some of the biggest early reality hits here included Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (from England), Survivor (from Sweden and the Netherlands) and American Idol (another English export).

''For a long time, American broadcasters, because of the success of European formats, were chasing the next best thing,'' says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, a division of one of the biggest reality programmers.

''With the success of The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire and Meet My Folks, broadcasters are getting more confident about American producers,'' Goldberg says.

Shows produced and broadcast here have become so popular that their formats are now being exported to other countries. England will have a version of The Bachelor, while Meet My Folks is going to Australia. Fox Television Studios was marketing Joe Millionaire last week at a global TV convention in Cannes, France.

Even shows that weren't hits in the USA, such as Fox's Murder in Small Town X, are selling overseas.

''U.S. formats, which used to be perceived as too glossy, have become some of the hottest brand names,'' says David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios.

Broadcasters in smaller countries where audience size might not justify American-style production costs can get help from entities such as Fox World, a Fox division that both acquires and markets program formats.

In the case of Temptation Island, production sets built in Honduras and Thailand were used by separate producers from several countries, each getting top-drawer visuals while splitting set costs.

Top production values pay off with viewers here, too, says Steve Wohl, who heads alternative programming at International Creative Management. ''Audiences respond to blue-chip franchises,'' he says.

Because one nation's hit can often succeed elsewhere, networks and producers track the foreign business, through reporting services, attendance at international shows and frequent contact with foreign programmers and producers.

But as reality programming matures here, the focus is shifting from grabbing the hottest new format to developing shows with producers who know how to make hits, says David Tenzer of Creative Artists Agency. Such relationships offer better long-term prospects for multiple hits, along with the greater financial opportunity that comes with creating, rather than buying, a format.

As more reality shows are developed here, American programmers will be less able to enjoy one advantage of foreign formats: the opportunity to see if they succeed before investing in them.

That's not a huge loss because reality carries relatively low costs. ''When reality formats do well, they're cost-efficient,'' says David Lyle of FremantleMedia. ''But when they don't do well, they're also cost-efficient.''