Research at a Glance

Research Question:
How are television formats traded in the absence of protection under
copyright law? Why pay when you can copy for free?

Methodology: Three Steps-

  1. Creation and analysis of database of 59 reported format disputes between 1988 and 2008.

  2. Semi-structured interviews with media sellers / buyers at 3 international TV trade fairs (NATPE Las Vegas, Discop Budapest & ATF Singapore).

  3. Emerging patterns specified through 3 video case studies of FremantleMedia formats: Idols, Got Talent & Hole in the Wall.

Key Findings:

Format developers use several groups of strategies to exploit TV formats globally.

  • Formalizing & transacting know-how
    ‘production bibles’ (e.g. sourcing contestants, audience organisation, production elements and structure); supplied under confidentiality; implementation via ‘flying producers’.

  • Brand management (registering trade marks, brand localisation, merchandising).

  • Social & distribution networks
    social norms (trade fairs, industry bodies, mediation, retaliation) speed to market (global production bases).

TV Formats Overview: International Trade of Formats and the Relevance of Format Rights

With the deregulation of national broadcasting markets during the 1970s and 1980s, cross-border trade in television programmes increased dramatically. Many European commercial broadcasters built their channels around licensed American television series, such as Dallas and Denver. At the same time, producers began to scan systematically national TV programming habits for promising ideas for international exploitation. For example, the first successful German soap opera Lindenstraße was a close imitation of Granada’s Coronation Street. The arrival of a digitized multi-channel television environment and a consumer oriented Internet (Netscape Navigator www browser 1994) initiated further fundamental changes in the nature of global media markets. Among other things, television formats (TV formats) became a major part of the daily schedule for many broadcasters and audiences worldwide. Examples included game shows (Who Wants to be a Millionaire; The Weakest Link), reality TV (Big Brother; I am a Celebrity - Get me out of Here; Wife Swap), and entertainment (Pop Idol; Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing).

Format trade worldwide has been increasing by more than 10% per year (FT, 2005). As early as 1999, BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, created a ‘Format Factory’ which year on year has achieved high revenues, with format sales for 2006 closing at over £35 million (BBC, 2006). According to FRAPA (2004) - a format producers’ industry association - the value of the global TV format business is in the excess of €2.4 billion, with the UK alone being the creator of more than 49% of all format hours broadcast worldwide (Fremantlemedia, 2007). The UK has emerged as a world leader with formats constituting 45 per cent of all TV programmes exports (DCMS, 2005). Though much of the flow of formats tends to be from the developed world towards the developing world, there have been examples of formats originating in countries such as Columbia (Ugly Betty) or Russia which have been sold to countries around the world.

Formats constitute processes of systematization of difference within repetition, tying together ‘television systems’, ‘national television industries’, ‘programme ideas’, ‘particular adaptations’, and ‘individual episodes of specific adaptations’ (Moran and Keane, 2004). Further, Moran and Malbon (2006) define a TV format as that set of invariable elements in a programme out of which the variable elements of an individual episode are produced. Formats originate in a particular country’s TV market and then are sold the world over, usually keeping the core of the programme the same but reproducing or recreating various aspects to localize according to local tastes and sensibilities. Though formats are created in any genre of programming, more popular ones tend to be game and quiz, reality, and factual entertainment shows where localization does not tend to take away the essence of a show.

What is a format?

In their highly competitive national television markets, broadcasters increasingly look for ‘sure shot’, ‘quick fit’, and ‘hit’ solutions - television formats provide them with a solution. Formats cost less time and money to produce than to create original shows and they have usually proven their ratings worth in more than one television market before being brought to be sold. Besides getting the broadcasters the required viewing figures and hence high advertising revenues, formats also have a high potential for merchandising, multimedia games, phone-in revenue and other brand extensions. These additional revenue streams further increase the allure of formats for broadcasters. This is evidenced by the huge sums of money broadcasters are prepared to pay in various territories or markets for a license or option to an original successful format. The license fees alone for a successful format can cost broadcasters in Western Europe up to £30,000 for 20 to 30 episodes (of 1 hour duration) for one season!

While formats trading is attractive, copycatting of successful formats is inevitable. Some broadcasters or producers scan the world for format solutions, and as there are low barriers to dissemination of information in the world today, recreate the format without paying any license fee. They might simply change elements of the original programme before localizing it themselves without the involvement of the originator. This, according to the original producer, is theft of their format rights - supposed intellectual property - leading to accusations of format plagiarism or format copycatting in the industry. In the last few years, in three of the biggest and most sophisticated television markets - USA, Germany and UK - there have been high profile accusations of format piracy or unauthorized copying. Among other examples, there are RDF’s ‘Wife Swap’ and similar shows in both the USA (‘Trading Spouses’) and Germany (‘Frauentausch’). Then there is UK’s ‘Pop Idol’ and its successor, ‘X Factor’. None of these involved any fly-by-night producers; all were highly respected large TV organizations!

The situation could potentially be exacerbated in the fastest growing media economies of the world such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC), where programme and format copying could take place not only for programmes imported into the country but even locally produced (Keane 2004, Thomas & Kumar 2004). The global television distribution market is expected to increase from US$160.6 billion in 2006 to US$250.7 billion in 2011 (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2007) and majority of this growth has been forecast to be in BRIC countries. This gives rise to the question whether format rights are respected in emerging economies and what mechanisms are utilized by formats trading companies to trade internationally.