Everyone has heard of American Idol, but less famous is the production company behind Fox’s singing sensation: FremantleMedia. Fremantle started as a small British production company that has grown ever larger through the wild success of Idol, the company’s acquisitions and skillful management.
As part of that growth, Rob Clark is moving up to become president of FremantleMedia Worldwide Entertainment. In his new role, Clark will continue to oversee the global roll-out of all of FremantleMedia’s developed and acquired non-scripted formats. He will manage the acquisition of entertainment formats from third parties and coordinate Fremantle’s global entertainment development network.
FremantleMedia is part of the RTL Group, which is 90 percent owned by Bertelsmann AG. Along the way, it has acquired other companies, such as talkbackTHAMES, UFA and Grundy. It has operations in 22 countries, and has rolled out more than 60 formats.
Clark joined Fremantle in 2003, and has managed many of the company’s global format roll-outs, including Got Talent (recently the origin of YouTube sensation) Susan Boyle, X Factor, Farmer Wants a Wife, The Apprentice, Hole in the Wall, Let’s Dance, Take Me Out and the highly successful Idols franchise, including American Idol and Britain’s Pop Idol. He also helped relaunch the Mark Goodson/Bill Todman game shows Family Feud, Password and Price is Right after Fremantle acquired those rights.
Prior to joining FremantleMedia, Clark was head of entertainment for Scottish Media Group and Princess Productions, as well as executive and senior producer for London Weekend Television, Carlton, Hat Trick and Celador.
I chatted with Clark last week about his new job, the state of international television and where he thinks the next great format will come from.
Fates: What will change in your new role?
Clark: I’ll continue operating in much the same way – acquiring wisely, developing internally and coordinating amongst our different production operations. A big part of my responsibilities are to make sure that our third-party partnerships have a clear voice in what we’re doing.
I’m absolutely a program maker. I come from a very creative background. The way Fremantle sees the way forward is through creative integrity and our belief in programming. It’s a very positive message the company is sending to the market. I’m here solely as the person who is passionate about television, and who can get our development teams to be as passionate about it too.
Fates: How do you define “acquiring wisely?”
Clark: In the old days, you would wait for something to air, see if it had ratings, and then you would buy it. An example of that would be The Apprentice, which we bought from the U.S.
The market is so much faster now that you have to appraise a property at an earlier stage. You need more information about what’s happening in key markets all over the world. You have to have relationships with those people even if you’ve never done business with them. You have to know the potential players of the future and the key players of the present.
You have to have a real sense that a property will work. We are looking for properties that are original but not too original because that scares networks. When we’re buying anything, we’re buying something with global potential. We’re also looking for things that are not culturally specific or related to a personality because the truth behind those formats is that once you take away the personality, there’s no format.
What we want is a balance within our portfolio: shows with limited runs, shows that build to a climax such as Idol, shows that run as daily strips. Some of our formats are flexible enough to run in primetime, in daytime and in longer formats, depending on the territory.
Fates: What’s the biggest mistake a network can make when acquiring a format?
Clark: The mistake that you can make is to say ‘we are different,’ and thus change a format. I’ve found that 99 times out of 100, people are the same so structurally you should keep a show the same. American Idol was exactly the same as Pop Idol when we brought it to the U.S., although it has slowly evolved over the years.
Another format, Hole in the Wall, which came from Japan, didn’t work particularly well in the U.S., although it’s working wonderfully in 40 other territories. In the U.S., a financial prize was added to the game, and all of a sudden a game that was just for fun became a game that was about winning. The dynamic completely changed. If a format works around the world, it will work, including in France, although the French love to tell you that it won’t.
If you have a winning formula, my advice is to stick with it.
Fates: Where do you think the next big format will come from?
Clark: What we’ll be looking at next will be some sort of reinvention of reality. That’s what we are looking for. And I expect it will come from the U.S., the U.K. or Holland. There are very few platforms that can successfully launch international formats, although there’s always the exception that proves the rule. Our strategy is to know what’s happening in these markets and try to be ahead of the game.
Fates: How do you see TV’s business model changing in these trying times?
Clark: The production model is certainly changing: how we produce shows, how we use central production, how television stays cost-effective and relevant. One thing broadcasters should be petrified of is risk and that’s where we come in. If it’s worked somewhere else, we know how to make it in any other country in the world. Quite often we’ve reduced all the major risk points on any given project.
Fates: Do you think that the influx of international formats will mean fewer jobs for Americans?
Clark: I don’t see why. We produce vast amounts of television. Shows like Got Talent or Idols – all of our big traveling formats – they are quite labor intensive and employ fantastically skilled people at every level. My new role is about creating a global environment within our many production companies that will allow people who want to work in television to work on fantastic shows.