In TV land, a “format” is the copyrighted concept of a show. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is a prime example. Every country has their version of that show, but it’s recognizably the same concept and branding as the original from the UK. By selling the format of a show, you are basically selling the rights to remake it with the already-established branding of the original version. There are entire markets (such as MipFormat) based around buying and selling formats, because a format is seen as a lower risk venture for producers. If one audience already loved a show, surely another one would.
Not Just for Game Shows anymore
Traditionally, formats were bought and sold on game shows and reality TV shows, like The Bachelor. But in recent years, formats for scripted TV have gained popularity, with The Office being a well-known success. In the case of scripted TV, a format includes not only the concept but also the story. The most successful format in foreign crime drama so far is Broen/Bron. Originally from Denmark and Sweden, Broen was remade in the U.S. as The Bridge, and in the UK and France as The Tunnel. As of this writing, there is an Austria/Germany version, a Russia/Estonia one and a Malaysia/Singapore version. A Serbian/Croat version is in the works as is an African one. All versions maintain the same basic plot in season 1: A veteran detective from one country is forced to work with a socially awkward female detective from another country when a body is found at the exact halfway point between both countries.
Characters more important than plot
According to a recent report by K7 Media, a media research firm, the most successful scripted formats aren’t the ones with the gimmicky plots, but rather shows with complex and interesting characters or relationships. In The Bridge, the friendship between the mismatched detectives is more of a selling point than the dead body on the bridge. The fact that two of the most successful scripted formats are Israel’s In Treatment (17 sales) and the U.S.’ Ugly Betty (19 sales), both of which are character driven, reinforces that point.
Are scripted Formats Still Relevant?
What’s interesting about today’s TV landscape is that due to global streaming, audiences have access not only to their country’s remake of a show, but to the original version as well. Not to mention third and fourth versions. Does this make format sales less relevant? Not according to K7 Media’s report. Scripted format sales with 3 or more territories have grown from 20 properties in the 1990s to 90 properties in 2019. I personally have watched 3 different versions of Broen/Bron, and would be happy to watch all of them. It’s fun to see the cultural differences between the different formats. For example, in the U.S. version of The Bridge, the Mexican detective had to run the gauntlet of endemic corruption in his police force. That was not the case in the UK or Danish versions. I’m curious to see how scripted format sales continue to trend in this Wild West era of television.
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