TV: Special Report - The next killer format

Domestic sitcoms won't cut it; reality is passe. So what'll be hot next season, Glen Mutel asks.

The UK viewing public has a long history of taking imported TV shows to its heart.

Anyone who cried as Scott married Charlene, gasped as JR was shot or fell in love with Lucy will attest to this.

However, UK TV has been looking remarkably self-sufficient of late. A run of hit comedies, a barrage of successful home-grown reality shows and a large, if inconsistent, complement of domestic dramas have cut the need for imported programming.

That's not to say a successful import isn't welcome. Take Channel 4's Desperate Housewives. After just one series, the dubious exploits of the women of Wisteria Lane seem to have embedded themselves in the nation's psyche.

But those of you impatient for the next Desperate Housewives may well be disappointed. It seems that, in terms of TV, the UK is currently in the export business.

That said, we will still see a large quotient of US programming over the next 12 months. But Channel 4's director of acquisitions, Jeff Ford, doubts there is a genuine audience-winner set to hit our screens. "There are some interesting shows in the US this year, and they're all very well made, but they're just not as different as you'd like them to be," he says. "If you're looking for a big show that everybody's going to remember in ten years' time, you might not find it."

In terms of drama, Ford feels US networks are producing too many procedural shows about over-familiar subjects, such as cops and lawyers.

However, Channel 4 has recently bought the US drama Invasion - a reworking of the traditional "aliens invade Earth" storyline. ITV has also put its hand in its pocket, buying the drama Supernatural, while five has opted for Fox's Prison Break.

Over the past couple of years, the American viewing public has developed an appetite for reality shows. The country's big TV networks were, and are still, reliant on imported European formats to satisfy this demand, although US producers have scored occasional hits with shows such as The Apprentice and Survivor.

One US format that has recently caught people's attention is Beauty and the Geek, in which intelligent-but-unfashionable men are teamed up with beautiful-yet-ditzy women in the hope that some of their qualities will rub off on each other. It may not have been bought yet, but expect to see the show on UK screens within a year.

The casualty of the US reality obsession in recent years has been comedy.

But this year, the genre is making a small but significant comeback. While the networks are still a long way off from finding the new Friends, Sex and the City or Frasier, they have produced a handful of shows which shun the traditional "set in a house" template.

One good example of this is Fox's How I Met Your Mother, in which a dad recounts the tales of his single life to his children. The show has already been purchased by the BBC.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has bought My Name is Earl - a sitcom about a man desperately trying to right a lifetime of wrongdoing - as well as the edgy family sitcom The War at Home.

Occasionally, UK broadcasters remember that there are territories outside North America. For example, the BBC has had moderate recent success with the Australian sitcom Kath & Kim. This year, the most interesting Australian show looks set to be the soap-style teenage drama Headlands.

Things are looking bleaker in continental Europe. The region that came up with reality shows such as Big Brother and The Farm is currently offering nothing more than list shows and old formats such as Pop Idol and Wife Swap.

MediaCom's head of international, Fraser Ridell, explains: "There's very little being generated anywhere in Europe that looks anything like a unique format. Things are becoming very homogenised."

Further afield, many Asian territories are coming alive to the reality genre. However, Asian formats are tailored to suit their host country's culture, a fact that often stops them exporting well to the West.

For example, India is awash with formats about how wives should deal with their mothers-in-law, according to Philip Talbot, the chief executive of ZenithOptimedia Asia-Pacific, while the title of the latest hit in Thailand translates as: "Why does she want to be a tomboy?"

Meanwhile, Latin America has retained its appetite for what Initiative Latin America's chief operating officer, Jean-Christophe Petit, describes as "80-episode TV novellas". These shows do export - for example, one of India's hit dramas, Star TV's Millie, is based on a South American show.

However, even in these days of Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives, the UK still prefers its drama to be a little less melodramatic.


Asia - The Fidelity Test

The Fidelity Test reality series actually consists of three separate Japanese shows: The Blackmail; The Stinger and The Triangle.

The most extreme is The Triangle, in which a female contestant tests her unknowing boyfriend by setting him up with an actress. If he takes the bait and starts an affair, the show's producers engineer it so that the members of the love triangle meet up over dinner.

Screentime Partners has picked up the rights to the show. A successful Russian version has already been produced.

The format is likely to interest any broadcaster looking to reach the 16- to 34-year-old demographic.

Latin America - Pulsaciones

At first, it might seem that Endemol (the company that gave us Big Brother) Argentina's Pulsaciones is a traditional gameshow with a run-of-the-mill Q&A format.

However, the show's contestants are not judged merely by the answers they give. They are also judged on how steady they can keep their heart rate. Pulsaciones has been such a success in Argentina that it has spawned a junior version, Mini Pulsaciones.

Surely this is an idea that could breathe some much-needed life into the British gameshow genre which is, dare it be said, tiring of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the many copycat quizshow formats.

North America - My Name is Earl

My Name is Earl is a sitcom based on an very unusual premise. Jason Lee plays Earl, a small-time crook who, after winning the lottery, realises that good things should come to good people.

Struck by this sudden sense of karma, Earl then sets about seeking out those whom he has wronged, in the hope of making amends for his past behaviour.

The show, which is made by 20th Century Fox, screens on NBC in the US and has recently been picked up by Channel 4.

While the show is too niche to hope to pull in viewers by the millions, Channel 4 is confident that it has a success on its hands.

Europe - Fata Morgana

This Belgian format, created by the production company Sultan Sushi, first debuted on the Flemish public broadcaster TV1 last year and has taken the country by storm.

In each episode, an entire town is challenged to complete a task in just a week. However, these tasks are not simple. In one episode, the residents of a small town were asked to turn their home into a ski village.

As there are already several reality TV shows in the UK that attempt to improve the lives of their participants, Fata Morgana would certainly fit in.

The show's rights are owned by FremantleMedia.