From Big Brother to The Voice via Deal or No Deal and Splash! Dutch producers have proved time and again that they know how to construct an international television hit. But do deep budget cuts at the public broadcast group and the increasing influence of international content threaten the Netherlands’ status as a creative powerhouse? Andy Fry investigates.
Why has a small northern European nation had such a big impact on the international market? Endemol Netherlands managing director Laurens Drillich believes it begins with “the character of the Dutch, which is progressive and open-minded. Challenging behaviour is part of the national psyche, which is why we have a history of creating such distinctive shows”.
Big Brother is the best-known example, but Drillich says this liberal attitude was evident as far back as 1991, when Endemol launched love-themed reality show All You Need is Love. “More recently there was [organ donation show] The Big Donor Show, which was another example of the Dutch willingness to tackle taboos.”
Shattering sacred cows is a Netherlands national sport, but it’s not the only factor that explains the creativity of its producers, says Drillich. “Also important is that the Netherlands is a small market with three very competitive broadcasters,” he says. “There has always been a drive towards innovation, even before there was a global market for formats.”
In addition to liberal attitudes and intense competition, Patty Geneste (left), CEO of format specialist Absolutely Independent, believes the country’s history as a trading nation has been a key factor in the TV export story. “As a country, the trading instinct has been in our genes for centuries. That has made us entrepreneurial and open-minded. Because we have been exposed to so many cultures and ideas it makes us brave and inventive. I used to work for Joop van den Ende [co-founder of Endemol] and he was always looking to export ideas.”
However, developments that could threaten the country’s status are emerging. One is the government’s decision to cut public broadcaster NPO’s budget by about €300 million (US$414.5 million) a year. EBU president Jean-Paul Philippot has slammed this move, saying it will severely weaken the organisation. “Cuts this deep will start a downward spiral that it will be near impossible to recover from,” he says, “starting with a hit on the quality and variety of NPO’s output.”
Of particular concern is that NPO is being forced to cut the number of broadcasting organisations under its umbrella from 22 to eight, starting in 2015.
“Competition between the various NPO broadcasting organisations has always been one of the factors that has encouraged innovation,” says Tuvalu Media managing director Taco Zimmerman. “The cutbacks are disappointing.”
Endemol, while nominally Dutch, is actually now a network of companies generating ideas from multiple sources, so it is just as happy importing an international idea into the Netherlands as it is exporting a Dutch idea abroad.
Endemol’s MD of creative operations, Iris Boelhouwer, acknowledges that this is the case. “We made Hotter Than My Daughter (pictured top) for the Dutch market,” she says. “That was originally a UK show that we turned into a primetime winner for RTL4. We’re happy when that happens.”
A similar situation pertains at Eyeworks, Blue Circle, Palm Plus and IDTV, which belong to Warner Bros., FremantleMedia, Zodiak Media and All3Media, respectively.
Among Blue Circle’s biggest hits are foreign formats including Farmer Wants a Wife, and local versions of The X Factor, Got Talent (pictured right) and Bake Off.
Palm Plus, which rebranded as Zodiak NL in 2013, is another good illustration. Last year, it produced 15 primetime shows for the three main broadcast groups (NPO, RTL and SBS) and Discovery-owned TLC. A significant number of these were imports from the Zodiak catalogue such as Save My Holiday, Fort Boyard and Embarrassing Bodies, as well as third-party formats including Junior Masterchef.
“There’s a clear commercial logic in rebooting franchises with a strong track record – and you’ve seen it happen in a lot of territories,” Zodiak Media’s VP of entertainment Andrew Sime says. “But the Dutch are particularly susceptible to this trend because of their willingness to take creative risks. When they see an innovative idea from abroad they like to tackle it for themselves, which does make for a crowded market.”
This interest in foreign formats has also played into the hands of international firms. All3Media has done well with Undercover Boss on RTL4, while ITV Studios Global Entertainment has broken into the market with local versions of Come Dine With Me (which is now in its third season on Net5), Keeping the Nation Alive, produced by iCare for Ned1, and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! The latter deal was negotiated in March 2014 by Phil Sequiera, senior sales executive, NW EMEA for ITVSGE, who says: “Endemol will be producing the local version for RTL5, and the location for it will be Dutch-speaking Suriname.”
The Dutch production community, however, believes it is still on top of its game. “We like ideas to come from everywhere, but people still look to the Netherlands for inspiration at Endemol’s global creative conferences,” says Boelhouwer. “There’s a level of trust that something that worked for a Dutch channel can be scaled up for the US or scaled down for small markets. A lot of broadcasters have aired Dutch formats in the past, and that makes them comfortable.”
Absolutely’s Geneste, whose catalogue is about 60% Dutch in origin and includes titles like Find My Family, The Phone and Checkpoint, agrees, arguing that Dutch creativity tends to thrive in adversity. “Issues like the financial crisis and industry consolidation actually encourage creativity,” she says. “The crisis made audiences crave something new. Plus, ownership consolidation creates openings for new young companies.”
Zodiak’s Sime is also upbeat: “Formats like The Voice [Talpa], I Love My Country [Talpa] and Celebrity Splash! [Eyeworks/Warner Bros.] pick up where the classic Dutch formats left off – you still see that edge in the schedules,” he says. “We have a show called Well Sick [for Ned3], in which the show’s presenter tries to live like people who have serious medical conditions. It’s exactly the kind of show the Dutch excel at, using humour to confront taboos.”
There is a creative resurgence in the Netherlands now, the Zodiak exec adds. “There is a return to some of the more risky stuff the Dutch used to be renowned for,”he says. “For example, RTL5 is airing Adam zkt Eva [Adam Looking for Eve], a naked dating show from Eyeworks founder Reinout Oerlemans.”
If there has been a resurgence, then a lot of credit must go to Talpa Media talent show The Voice, which has shaken up the global market. “The Voice [which debuted on RTL4] is continuing to do excellent business for us,” says Talpa International MD Maarten Meijs. “We now have 55 local versions around the world and are continuing to add new territories such as Greece. Following up behind there is The Voice Kids, now in 25 territories, and Beat the Best, a format that we have sold into France, Ukraine and Vietnam.”
Talpa belongs to John De Mol, co-founder of Endemol and creator of Big Brother. While the company is best known internationally for The Voice, the big story domestically right now is the company’s latest format, Utopia (below). “In a sense, it is a return to what Big Brother was at the very start,” says Meijs, “a kind of reality TV social experiment. In this case, 15 people agree to go and live together in an isolated community for a year. The show, which airs five nights a week on SBS6, follows their daily challenges as they build things up from scratch.”
Domestically, it has been a massive hit, increasing SBS6’s ratings by 500% in the slot in question. “It has already been picked up by Fox in the US and TV8 in Turkey,” says Meijs. “We’re also in negotiations with other major territories.” Further deals have now been secured with Prima TV in Romania, RTL in Germany and CityTV in Canada.
This ability to get ideas to the international market is viewed by many local players as another key advantage that the Dutch have over other countries. “You often hear of hit formats emerging from markets like Israel, Japan or Turkey,” says Meijs, “but one thing that gives the Dutch an edge is that we have the logistical experience to take shows worldwide very quickly.”
While most of the above companies have consolidated into larger groups, Tuvalu Media demerged from Sony Pictures Television last December. “We enjoyed our five years with SPT,” says Tuvalu CEO Taco Zimmerman, “but we think being independent gives us a better chance of exporting our IP. It’s a chance for our shows to get more attention from buyers.”
As an indie, the big challenge for Tuvalu will be how to avoid being squeezed by the Dutch market’s big players. “Our strategy is to specialise in areas where we know we are strong, like factual entertainment,” says Zimmerman. “We won’t be going into shiny floor shows because that’s where companies like Endemol, Talpa, Eyeworks and FremantleMedia compete.”
Key titles for Tuvalu include I Can Make You a Supermodel for RTL5, a format in which girls are approached on the street and then transformed into catwalk-capable models. It is also making Milky Way Mission for NPO, a show that will send people into space. “For a lot of countries, that’s a show which will deliver them their first astronaut,” says Zimmerman. The format is being sold internationally by former owner SPT.
In Zimmerman’s opinion, titles like Milky Way Mission and Utopia show that the Dutch system is still open to ambitious ideas. “The market is big enough to cope with multiple trends. Alongside the big productions, there is a trends,” he says. “Towards shows that are about a simpler, more nostalgic life. The Great Bake Off has been a big success here [FremantleMedia for NPO’s Ned1], and we have made The Patch for Ned1.”
While the Dutch make a good case in defence of their creativity, one obvious question is whether consolidation at the top end of the production sector will block new talent coming through. Meijs doesn’t think so. “I still believe there is room for younger producers to enter the market if they do it in a smart way,” he says. “It’s still a country that likes to support creativity.”
Sime agrees. “The Netherlands has a track record of bringing through talent-led production companies,” he says. “Young producers have seen the impact that John de Mol and Reinout Oerlemans have had and realise there is an opportunity to emulate that.”
While the Dutch are masters of the entertainment format, their track record in other genres is patchy. Off the Fence CEO Ellen Windemuth is glad she based her factual production/distribution business in Amsterdam, but she didn’t do it in order to secure Dutch commissions.
“There’s a great quality of life, great transport links and a progressive tax regime that works well for companies that deal in royalties, but the Netherlands has no direct role in my business. The channels here are more interested in factual entertainment than the kind of specialist factual productions that we work with.”
Drama is a more mixed story. Building on its success in non-fiction formats, Endemol has started to have some success with scripted formats, says Drillich, selling Penoza to the US where it ran for a season on ABC as Red Widow. Drama is a genre where foreign distributors do well.
“Our detective dramas such as Midsomer Murders, Inspector George Gently and Foyle’s War have had a very loyal following on KRO [part of NPO] for many years,” All3media International sales executive Kelly Shek says. “They have also recently licensed Hinterland, which will launch later this year.”
In general NPO looks for good-quality drama, high-end docs and festival style docs. By contrast, RTL and SBS are more commercial and tend to look for factual entertainment and lifestyle programming, lighter programming and sometimes more risqué documentaries or shock docs. They are also more likely to acquire US drama than NPO.
One opportunity that has emerged, however, is for content skewed towards females at RTL8 and males on RTL7. “We licensed Hunt vs Lauda to RTL7,” says Shek. “That’s a one-hour documentary on the rivalry of the two Formula 1 drivers that fits RTL7’s profile and is timely because of the movie Rush.”
While the big three groups still dominate, ITVSGE’s Sequiera says new outlets are opening up for content. “We sold Four Weddings US, Australia and Canada to Discovery. Having some North American content in the catalogue is a big advantage; Hell’s Kitchen US sold to SBS, for example.”
Shek makes a similar point, saying that Undercover Boss UK, US and Australia are all in the market alongside the local version.
For Sequiera, sales to the Netherlands offer a secondary benefit, particularly in the field of formats. “If you sell a format into the Netherlands, other countries take notice,” he says. “We had Game of Chefs at MIPTV, which could perform a similar role to Come Dine With Me and Masterchef. If we make that sale in Holland, then I’d expect markets like Eastern Europe to take note.”