'Idol' spreads its tune in the global village
'Idol' brings not just music but a taste of democracy to far-flung corners of the world.In Germany, the show features physical slapstick. In the Pan Arab and Malaysian versions, boys and girls must keep apart. One can only speculate what the upcoming Serbia and Vietnam shows will do to the format. But regardless, one thing remains the same: The "Idol" format works in every language.
"There might be differences, but what they have in common is the rags-to-riches story, which everyone loves," series executive producer Ken Warwick of FremantleMedia says. "Audiences everywhere get invested in the aspirations and dreams of young kids."
He does mean everywhere. The Fox network version of "Idol" currently airs in 107 countries, and the "Idol" brand has been successfully exported to 39 countries, which create their own locally flavored and produced versions -- many of which are strikingly similar to the original.
"There are cultural sensibilities but not that many actual differences," FremantleMedia senior executive vp Rob Clark says. "Pan Arabic 'Idol' has the same opening titles and music as 'American Idol.'"
The international success of the "Idol" phenomenon can largely be attributed to producer FremantleMedia, which owns a substantial global production network. Revenue comes not just from the licenses and lucrative production deals but from an avalanche of premium phone line revenue gathered in almost every territory outside the U.S.; that income goes to both Fremantle and 19.
"Idol's" global popularity and its astonishing domestic ratings success document a high point in the long history of FremantleMedia and its various incarnations through the years. Having spent most of the 1990s building up a formidable collection of production and distribution houses (including future "Idol" co-producer Thames Television in 1993 and in 1997, All American Television, which included subsidiaries Fremantle and Goodson, home to syndicated game shows "Family Feud" and "The Price Is Right") in the U.S. and Europe, Pearson Television ultimately reorganized and merged with European media conglomerate CLT-Ufa to create the Luxembourg-based RTL Group. And in 2001, the content production division of RTL was renamed FremantleMedia -- just in time for the earliest version of Simon Fuller's Britain-based "Pop Idol" to shake up reality television. "American Idol" debuted as a summer replacement series on Fox the following year.
These days, outside the U.S. and U.K., FremantleMedia has rights to sell the format and the finished "Idol" program when the show is a co-production. In countries where FremantleMedia has production companies, they serve as the local producer, executing local TV-related telephony deals, plus sponsorship and merchandising. Meanwhile, in each territory, Fuller's company, 19 Entertainment, has the rights to manage the winner or appoint local management.
Nevertheless, though the "Idol" format had done well in England, FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz says it was not immediately a format beloved by American TV executives.
"The only person who saw something in it was (Fox executive vp alternative programming) Mike Darnell, and even that was pretty lukewarm," she recalls. "(Sony BMG) said, 'We don't think you are going to break new artists, and we don't think we will break even.'"
Needless to say, Fox came around, and quickly so did the rest of the world. Since then, the show has been known to take on surprising political dimensions: The 2003 finale of Pan Arab "Idol" featured a face-off between a Palestinian and a Libyan. "It became a point of pride to see a young male Palestinian achieving something positive," FremantleMedia executive producer Sheldon Bailey says.
Notes Bob Cousins -- who, like Bailey, serves as one of the show's "flying producers," jumping from territory to territory -- "Idol" is spreading not just a love of music but an unintentional political message.
"To say that 'Idol' brought some alien concepts would be an understatement," he notes, speaking from the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, where he is working on that nation's first "Idol" series. "The idea that each and every member of the public can influence the result by a telephone vote was a real novelty."
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