The World: UK rides high as exporter of television formats

Popular British shows such as Top Gear and Ashes to Ashes are finding new life all over the world. Maria Esposito investigates.

Detective Inspector Gene Hunt is a peculiarly British creation. As the most compelling character in the BBC's hit time-travel drama Life on Mars, Hunt is a hard-talking, no-nonsense policeman waging war on Manchester's criminal fraternity in 1973 and then in the 80s for the spin-off series, Ashes to Ashes. With his camel-hair coat and a vocabulary liberally sprinkled with "sissy", "bender" and "Man United-supporting poof", it is hard to imagine Hunt pulling in viewers anywhere but the UK. Contrary to expectation, however, Hunt is getting a makeover for Spanish TV. Like an increasing number of UK shows, Life on Mars will soon be filling a primetime spot on the national commercial broadcaster Antena 3.

For Mercedes Gamero, Antena 3's head of sales and acquisitions, it is an unusual pick-up. The channel is more used to adapting Latin American telenovelas such as Ugly Betty, but Gamero is sure that Life on Mars will work for her audience. "I do not usually buy much British stuff, but this show really reflects how our society has changed," she says. "We think Spanish viewers will love the mix of drama and comedy."

Life on Mars is also being reworked for the US network ABC by the Ally McBeal creator, David E Kelley. This remake is just one of a number of British shows heading overseas. The BBC's Top Gear has been acquired by both the US channel NBC and the Australian broadcaster SBS, while the Channel 4 teen drama Skins is set for a remake in Spain and Romania.

For Jane Millichip, the chief operating officer at the distributor RDF Rights, these adaptations come as no surprise. "The UK is seen as the ideas centre, particularly in the area of factual entertainment," she says. "UK producers have been seen as leading the way in new ideas and hybrid genres."

RDF certainly opened doors for other British companies when it sold its format Scrapheap Challenge to the American channel TLC. This was swiftly followed by the sale of its confrontational family format Wife Swap to ABC. Now gearing up for a fifth season in the US, Wife Swap has also been picked up by a slew of territories including Germany, Chile and Croatia.

The BBC has been equally successful with its celebrity dance format Strictly Come Dancing, which has secured primetime slots in the US, Sweden, Poland and South Africa. Collectively, UK producers are still reaping the rewards of the seeds sown by Celador's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. "Millionaire was a biggie ten years ago and it started people looking at the UK," Louise Pedersen, the managing director of the distributor All3Media International, says.

Formats have certainly become a major earner for the British TV industry since the launch of Millionaire. The global formats business is worth around EUR2.4 billion a year and, thanks specifically to shows such as Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing and How To Look Good Naked, UK formats account for 40 per cent of world trade in this sector, according to figures recently released by the production giant FremantleMedia.

Although the US and the Netherlands could become serious rivals in the coming decade, the British independent sector is still riding high in format creation, production and distribution. The latest survey of the UK TV export market by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reveals an 87 per cent rise in income from licensing format idea overseas. In total, revenue from the international sales of UK programmes rose by 20 per cent from 2005, to £593 million in 2006.

North America accounted for 41 per cent of these sales, while European producers and broadcasters trailed behind with 33 per cent. Michel Rodrigue, the chief executive at the international formats distributor Distraction Formats, believes that UK producers benefit from their global language. "English is the language of business and every-one understands it," he says.

"Non-English formats are a much harder sell. People can't look at something and understand it straight away. They don't get the subtleties and the humour."

Beata Hegedus, the managing director of the international syndication company Debmar Mercury, attributes the success of UK programming to the willingness of producers to set up shop abroad. "British companies go over, establish their own companies and make the programmes themselves," she says. "It's more cost effective for Americans like this because English production staff are cheaper. Everyone knows that BBC Worldwide will do a good job and Fremantle will too."

Hegedus does, however, pick out one territory that is not open to British programming's charms. "I don't think any UK producer can work in France," she says. "They have such a different sensibility. The British are too quirky and they approach sensitive subjects and production in a very different way."

Millichip agrees, particularly when it comes to dramas. "British drama is seen as dark and pessimistic and, according to French buyers, our actors are ugly," she says. "British drama can also be difficult to sell because we get commissions for six episodes and everyone has slots for 12 or 22 episodes."

By comparison, Austra-lia is an easy sell. Matt Campbell, SBS's director of content for television and online, puts this down to historical ties and a similar taste in comedy.

"We are still a colony, unfortunately, with a large population of people from UK backgrounds," he says. "But it's more than that. It's a sensibility for drama and, particularly, comedy: Australians are big on irony; the US is not."

Campbell has seen British dramas such as Channel 4's Shameless and Skins and the BBC's Top Gear work both on screen and online for SBS. He believes a local version of Top Gear will be equally successful for his network. "We had been running the UK version and it became our number-one show," he says.

Top Gear's growing international success is no flash in the pan, Chris Bonney, the managing director of Outright Distribution, says. The company has seen the rising popularity of British content for itself, with sales of its show Super-nanny and, most recently, Wall to Wall's family-history format Who Do You Think You Are? to the US and beyond. "Britain has done particularly well with factual entertainment, as well as light entertainment," he says. "The quality of our factual narrative storytelling is the best in the world."

In tandem with mounting financial pressures for channels worldwide, this narrative skill has placed British production standards on a par with US TV content.

"We have a reputation for quality, and the BBC, ITV1 and Channel 4 are now ranked alongside the US networks as world shop windows," Bonney adds.

Aside from regular importers such as the US and Europe, emerging territories are also taking a look in Britain's shop window. China, once a heavily regulated and limited market for producers and distributors, has jumped on the format bandwagon. "Saturday Night Takeaway is attracting 50 million viewers a week in China," Tim Mutimer, the director of sales at the distributor Granada International, says.

Though this does not mean Friends reruns or Heroes will be dropping off our screens any time soon, it does signal a greater reliance on British content to fill primetime schedules around the globe. With Life on Mars about to debut in Spain, the ITV1 drama Footballers' Wives already adapted in Italy and everything from The Vicar of Dibley to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em lined up for remakes in the US, British content is riding high. Mutimer is convinced that the production community in the UK will continue to ride this international wave for some time to come.

"Arguably, we have the most creative production community in the world, coupled with commissioners who are prepared to take risks and try out something new," he says. "The broadcast landscape in the UK is getting ever more competitive, so if a show works here, there's a good chance it will work somewhere else too."