TV's efficiency exports

Int'l scripted formats are the rage

If you thought the Academy Awards were dominated by foreigners, wait until you see this year's TV pilot season.

Of the five pilots ordered by the broadcast networks last week, four were based on international formats — the British drama "Ny-Lon" and the Israeli drama "Mythological X" at CBS and British comedies "Outnumbered" and "Spaced" at Fox.

"I think the strike had a lot to do with it," said Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV, which produces "Mythological X" as well as the ABC pilot "Life on Mars," based on the BBC series. "You had that incredibly speculative time in the production business when there was uncertainty if we would be working together again."

Walden and her team spent time during the strike-imposed hiatus watching the 11 completed episodes of "Mythological."

"You get the great benefit of being able to see the great twists and turns the characters take (beyond the pilot)," she said. "The network also was excited to do a reasonably priced show that is still compelling and has a fantastic character at the center but doesn't have car chases and 85 scenes."

Most foreign series don't rely on big production values but on storytelling, which also proves attractive to U.S. studios that have been searching for ways to lower production costs in the wake of the writers strike.

Sparked by the success of "The Office" and "Ugly Betty," the rise of foreign-scripted formats came into its own last year when a record eight broadcast pilots were based on British series. With the thick of pilot ordering still days away, that number already has been surpassed this year.

Nine pilots ordered by the broadcast networks so far — "Ny-Lon," "Mythological X," "Outnumbered," "Spaced," "Life on Mars," the CBS drama "Eleventh Hour" and comedy "Worst Week" and NBC comedies "Father Ted" and "Kath & Kim" — are based on international formats, as is the Fox comedy "Don't Bring Frank," which is close to a pilot order.

Additionally, Canadian imports "The Listener" and "Flashpoint" were picked up as series by NBC and CBS, respectively; the British-produced series "Robinson Crusoe" set sail at NBC; and NBC is doing a highly publicized adaptation of the 2006 Colombian telenovela "Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso."

The foreign format wave has also reached cable shores, with HBO adapting the Israeli drama "In Treatment" and Showtime acquiring British series "Secret Diary of a Call Girl."

"It's like an ever-growing frontier where people are looking for the next big thing anywhere in the world," said Chris Coelen of Pangea, which co-produces "Ny-Lon." The company is developing several series based on U.K. properties, including "Angel Cake," "Being Human," "Vexed" and "Gone" and is looking at series in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and Colombia.

With networks' appetite for scripted imports growing, format acquisition and packaging has become big business. All major talent agencies are dispatching agents in territories around the globe with marching orders to snatch anything that looks promising for the U.S. As a result, there are often multiple U.S. producers vying for the rights to some shows.

The competition intensifies once the formats hit the U.S. marketplace.

One of the biggest bidding wars among networks this development season was over the sci-fi drama "Eleventh Hour," a British format. It landed at CBS with a penalty that amounts to a series commitment.

And international formats now attract some of the biggest names in American television.

David E. Kelley adapted the BBC's time-travel cop drama "Life on Mars" for ABC. Jerry Bruckheimer is behind "Eleventh Hour," while McG is exec producing "Spaced."

While the invasion of foreign scripted formats is a relatively new phenomenon, Coelen view it as a a natural extension of the domination of international formats on the unscripted side.

"It's almost as if we're catching up a little bit in this country," he said. "The format business dominates the reality business, and it's blown up in the exactly the same way on the scripted side as it did on in the reality area."

What attracts networks to foreign formats the most is the ability to get projects that have already been developed, something especially important this year with the pilot season truncated by the strike.

"We're looking at pieces of material that have gone through a lot of development — either very well developed scripts or shows that have been produced — so you have a huge head start, something you can touch and feel and wrap your head around," Coelen said.

Going out with a fully developed show also gives a leg up to the U.K. producers, according to Rob Pursey of U.K.'s Touchpaper TV, the RDF-owned company behind the original "Ny-Lon."

"Being able to show a network the completed show is a bonus — it's a bit like going out and making the pilot for them and giving them an idea of what works," he said.

He believes that helped a show like "The Office" get a shot in the States. "It's safe to say that if someone had pitched "The Office" cold to the U.S., it would have been a pretty tough sell. Having something to look at makes all the difference," he said.

The influx of British formats during the past few years was fueled by the deregulation in the British TV industry four years ago that handed producers the distribution rights to their series, which they once had to surrender as part of the broadcaster's commission.

"It has made British producers look more closely at what opportunities might arise in the U.S.," Pursey said. "As budgets have got tighter in the U.K., we've had to look at ways of finding income elsewhere."

Mimi Turner in London contributed to this report.