Tuning into Formats

Tuning-into-FormatsKristin Brzoznowski speaks to a range of distributors about the current format trends across Central and Eastern Europe.

The lingering clouds of economic recession have parted in many of the countries across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and those working in the TV business are enjoying the prospects of the brighter days ahead. Distributors have been reporting an upswing in program sales in the region for a few years now, and with broadcasters’ budgets opening up, format licensing has been in a particularly sunny spot.

“Over the last five years we have been selling a lot of finished content in CEE, but especially in the last two years we are achieving some format sales there as well,” says Izzet Pinto, the founder and CEO of Global Agency. “It’s growing year after year.”

Pinto cites increasing programming budgets in Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia in particular. He says that in these territories, buyers are interested in daily, stripped formats, which is why titles such as Shopping Monsters and Blind Taste have been strong sellers.

Both of these formats present opportunities for advertisers and sponsors as well, Pinto notes. “Sometimes buyers can recoup around 50 percent of their investment from sponsors and the rest from ad sales,” he says. “We let them keep the sponsorship revenue so that they can recoup some of their investment. Showing them this flexibility is also comforting for them, because we have to make sure that they don’t lose any money and that the show gets profitable so that both sides benefit from it.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s (ITVS GE) well-established unscripted format brands continue to thrive in CEE, according to Jennifer Ebell, the company’s VP of sales for southeast EMEA. ITVS GE has seen recommissions across the region for formats such as Four Weddings (Hungary), The Chase (Croatia and Serbia), Come Dine with Me (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) and Hell’s Kitchen (Poland).

Ebell says that factual entertainment has been selling best in CEE countries. “Being more of a hybrid genre—where one can see cooking, docusoaps, lifestyle, competition, etc.—it has broad appeal; it provides entertainment for everyone,” she explains. “From public broadcasters to small DTT channels, factual-entertainment formats deliver low costs and easily adaptable scale. That is why we see formats such as Come Dine with Me continue to be successful across the region.”

For Keshet International (KI), formats such as BOOM!, Rising Star and Master Class have been strong performers in CEE. In Hungary, for example, the local version of Master Class has delivered solid ratings for TV2. The third season was peaking with a 30-percent share, which is 88-percent above the channel’s average.

Paula Cohen McHarg, who manages sales for KI in CEE and CIS, among other territories, says that a format like the music-based Master Class is well suited for audiences across Central and Eastern Europe. “It’s family-friendly and heartwarming, and the traditional songs performed in the series also match the culture of the region and are loved by many.”

The distributor has also made headway with some of its scripted formats, notably with comedies. The local version of Traffic Light had seven seasons in Russia on CTC, while Your Family or Mine was adapted in Greece and Ukraine. The Baker and the Beauty was also remade in Greece.

“There are more and more similarities between CIS and CEE countries and forward-thinking, tech-savvy nations such as South Korea and Israel than there were before,” observes Cohen McHarg. “CIS and CEE countries that were used to broadcasting more traditional content are now embracing ‘the new’ and becoming more youthful as market pressures force them to modernize.”

This bodes well for South Korea’s CJ E&M, which is looking to ramp up its business in this part of the world. “With the steady rise of our finished-tape sales in CEE, we are also witnessing growing interest in our formats there,” says Jangho Seo, the company’s head of international sales and acquisitions.

And this is for both scripted and unscripted formats, Seo says. “Buyers are looking for big, shiny-floor, prime-time shows on the non-scripted side, while on the scripted side, they want strong scripts focused on family and romance, with conflicts among the characters.” CJ E&M’s Korean drama Ice Adonis was remade in Ukraine and several European countries have started to develop localized scripts.

Scripted formats have proven popular in CEE for Mediaset Distribution, the international-sales arm of the Italian group Mediaset. Series with a lot of drama and action have been of particular interest to buyers in this region, according to Manuela Caputi, who heads up international sales for the Mediaset catalog at the company. This includes A Matter of Respect, adapted in Turkey and Russia; Tuscan Passion, licensed in Turkey; Police District, commissioned in Russia; and CentoVetrine, localized in Poland.

Caputi says that the next step is to make inroads with its unscripted slate. At NATPE Budapest, the company will be talking to buyers about Rocco to the Rescue, which sees former adult-entertainment star Rocco Siffredi giving tips to couples in crisis, and the family-targeted Mr Brown.

While Turkey and Russia have been the main clients in CEE for Mediaset Distribution’s scripted-format sales, Caputi believes that showcasing its unscripted entertainment catalog will open up new possibilities in Romania, Poland and Bulgaria.

KI’s Cohen McHarg, meanwhile, has her sights set on the CIS. “CIS countries, particularly Russia, are taking more risks,” she says. “The most popular formats in Russia used to be big, established, proven formats, whereas now we’re starting to see a lot more smaller channels commissioning edgier and more risk-taking content.”

This is true outside of Russia as well. “New opportunities for sales lie with the smaller channels that in the past only acquired finished content,” says ITVS GE’s Ebell. “In some markets we are seeing these smaller DTT and satellite channels looking to commission their first local production.”

While budgets may have opened up enough that local production is viable, there are still many cost constraints that need to be addressed when selling formats in CEE. Oftentimes, studio sets are pared down and “less fancy,” notes Global Agency’s Pinto, “and sometimes there is a smaller production crew. In the end, the quality is probably lower than [Western] European standards, but it’s still pretty good.”

Alongside scaling budgets, changes to episode duration are frequently requested in local markets. “Extending the running time of a show by tweaking its structure is very common,” says ITVS GE’s Ebell. “This is specifically to fit the viewing habits of the local audience and it provides greater ROI [return on investment].” Hell’s Kitchen, for example, is traditionally 60 minutes, but in Poland it runs as a 90-minute version.

Ebell acknowledges that it’s still difficult to launch a new format into CEE that doesn’t come with a track record. “There are some great concepts out there, but locally the risk can prove to be too high. With limited time slots and constrained budgets, channels are hesitant to acquire that brand-new format. We have seen more local development, where the risk is the same but there is value to the broadcaster in owning the IP outright.”

CJ E&M’s Seo agrees, and this is why co-development deals with broadcasters are among the avenues the company is exploring to get its formats business off the ground in CEE.

According to Cohen McHarg, KI’s format business in the region is bolstered by the fact that the series it presents have already worked elsewhere. “The majority of our shows have been tried and tested in Israel, and some of them are the highest rated in the country,” she says. “They are also family friendly and perfect weekend event entertainment, which is in high demand.”

Cohen McHarg says that the greatest challenge when doing business in this part of the world is finding a balance between providing cost-effective solutions that allow smaller territories to commission big formats and doing so without compromising on quality.

Global Agency’s Pinto cites fees as the biggest challenge when working in this market. “The fees offered are quite small,” he says. “We don’t want to [do a deal on a format] that underestimates its strength and value. We believe in our projects, but we also try to be supportive. We always try to find a middle ground. So, sometimes we will offer reasonable fees for first seasons and higher fees in the following seasons. Once they see the success, they are happy to share more [of the money] with us.”

This benefits business in the long run, Pinto says, since once other territories in the region see how a format was able to be adapted successfully with a smaller budget, it spurs interest from neighboring countries. “Sometimes when there’s a success in Serbia, then Croatia buys it, then Macedonia, then Albania. If you can reach seven or eight territories, all added together the income isn’t bad. You have to make sure that you enter several territories in CEE so that it makes sense profit-wise.”

Overall, Pinto is optimistic about the CEE format business, as he sees more opportunities opening up to score prime-time slots. “Greece currently has a better market for prime-time shows, but all countries in Central and Eastern Europe are growing to become potential buyers for prime-time formats,” he says. “For example, Bulgaria is becoming an important market.”

Mediaset Distribution has already managed to score prime-time slots in CEE with remakes of some of its long-running Italian series. Caputi believes the prospects for prime time will remain bright as long as the company continues to bring formats with “great stories, intense emotions and flexibility for adaptation.”

“As for any region, the greatest opportunity is to develop the next big entertainment hit, or the next big long-running factual-entertainment format like Come Dine with Me,” says ITVS GE’s Ebell of her CEE priorities. “There is also a potential opportunity in scripted formats.”

KI’s Cohen McHarg believes pooling resources could be a way forward for format success in CEE. “We see a great opportunity in creating CEE production hubs. Closing group deals and creating a production hub for formats such as BOOM! would be hugely beneficial, especially for multiple broadcasters.”

With buyers across the region taking more risks, prime time continuing to open up, and producers and distributors becoming increasingly savvy about how to adapt to tight budgets, the forecast for the format business across CEE is sunny indeed.

Pictured: Keshet’s Rising Star on TV2 in Hungary.