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Fremantle Catching On with Cable

6/16/2002 8:00 PM Eastern

Around the world, FremantleMedia enjoys a reputation as one of the world's major producers and distributors of television programming, with its fare running regularly in more than 35 nations.

Until a year and a half ago, though, its U.S. fortune was forged on a handful of singular sensations, The Galloping Gourmet
in the 1970s, Baywatch
in the 1990s and more recently, Family Feud
and other revivals of Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game shows, rather than a steady flow of programming.

At FremantleMedia these days, singular is out, and flow, with cable as a primary faucet, is in.

The company, now a unit of Bertelsmann AG subsidiary RTL Group, has co-produced 100 Centre Street
and Nero Wolfe
for A&E Network over the last 18 months, and helped Game Show Network launch its new flock of original series with Whammy! The All New Press Your Luck
two months ago.

Oliver's Twist, a weekly Food Network show with Naked Chef
personality Jamie Oliver, is Fremantle's freshest cable effort, completing its first month on Food this week.

BATTING .750

So far, Fremantle is hitting three for four in cable.

Despite critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination for cinematography, A&E lowered the curtain on 100 Centre Street
after a season-and-a-half. Nero Wolfe, in its second cycle of episodes, is drawing solid ratings in the 1.5 to 2.0 Nielsen Media Research range, and Whammy!
is matching or surpassing Game Show's 0.5 primetime average.

Oliver's Twist
is also performing above Food's nightly 0.6average, according to FremantleMedia U.S. entertainment president David Lyle.

Cable's share of Fremantle's business could grow dramatically in the next year or so. According to company executives, Discovery Channel may be the next service to make a series commitment.

Fremantle is also in talks with A&E and GSN to bring more shows to those networks, and a number of projects in development announced early last month are geared for cable plays. Beyond that, Fremantle is looking at adapting several drama concepts from overseas for U.S. cable or broadcast-network runs.

Up for cable consideration are:

  • Life Laundry. Based on a BBC2 housemaker format, the show could wind up on Discovery's air soon

  • Real Life Adventures. A weekly reality show in which the participants live out a week of surprise adventure and romance, all captured through hidden cameras

  • Match Game. The classic panel game is being reworked for primetime, and is co-produced out of New York with Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video

  • They Think It's All Over. A BBC hit where sports celebrities test their brains and brawn, developed by Whose Line Is It Anyway? executive producer Dan Patterson

REALITY SHIFT

A shift in corporate culture, brought on by the decline in syndication ratings across all dayparts over the last few years, is fueling the company's aggressive cable activity.

"We used to look at syndication before everything else," Lyle said. "My mission now is to be a credible supplier to a number of outlets, and in a number of genres, rather than trot out Goodson-Todman formats year after year.

"As part of that focus, with so many cable networks looking for original programs that can strengthen their following, we're going after them. The good thing about formats, of which we have many, both classic and new, is that they can be tweaked and designed for the different audience niches cable reaches."

In early 2001, Fremantle, operating through subsidiary Pearson Television, signed on with 100 Centre Street
and A&E, largely on the strength of acclaimed director Sidney Lumet's role as creator, executive producer and recurring writer and director.

The dramatic look at the world of night court in New York, combining Lumet's use of live TV-type production techniques with high-definition video transferred to film, was immediately enticing.

"Because of Sidney, say no more," Fremantle senior vice president of North American development and programming Jane Rimer said. "We knew creatively it would be great."

Cost-wise, 100 Centre
averaged $900,000 per episode, well below the $1.2 to $1.6 million per-episode average for a broadcast network drama.

But in the second season, ratings tumbled and efforts by A&E to revive audience interest, including a switch in nights and an all-Saturday marathon last January, proved unfruitful.

Lumet has been mum about future TV ventures since 100 Centre's departure from A&E. Rimer has conferred with him a few times. "We'd love to do another show with him," she said. "Why didn't the show catch? Who can tell? That's the nature of this business."

DRAMAS IN MIND

As for Nero Wolfe, ratings are solid and Rimer is happy with the show's creative direction, which includes a set of supporting actors who switch roles from episode to episode.

She's developing more one-hour dramas, with A&E top of mind. "I talk to them all the time and the relationship is very close," Rimer said.

The relationship with GSN on Whammy!
is even tighter. Bob Boden, the channel's senior vice president of programming, and other network officials, review show elements with Fremantle staff and catch taping sessions.

"This is not a policy aimed at them," he explained. "We want to be hands-on for all the original shows we do. The review of everything from scripts to questions to prizes builds the kind of show we want on the air."

Fremantle "has been a great partner," Boden added. "They've brought a lot of creative effort to Whammy!, including some terrific humor and suspense elements that the old Press Your Luck
didn't have."

For the first time, Fremantle is getting raves from some game-show pundits and fans who have disapproved of its syndicated game revivals of the last few years.

A two-season remake of To Tell the Truth, which ended earlier this year, was criticized for mixing a classy hosting performance by John O'Hurley (Seinfeld) with low-class subject matter, as in guessing the identity of people who did things in the buff.

Boden discounts criticism leveled against Fremantle's past game work.

"The failure of any show has to do with circumstances beyond the function of the show itself," he said. "On Truth, the original show was about discovering people larger-than-life and heroic. Today, with communications the way it is, picking heroic people is more difficult because everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame.

"The challenge is even bigger when you don't have good syndicated clearances. Truth
developed the sexy bent because the show didn't succeed at first. We've given Whammy!
every possible way to succeed, from having Press
as a lead-in to as much marketing and public relations support as we've ever mustered on a show's behalf. Fremantle's been very instrumental in that process."

"The criticism on some things we do like Truth
is fair," Lyle acknowledged. "Sometimes I agree with it and sometimes I don't.

"What's great about the Game Show Network relationship is that they serve as a second pair of eyes," he added. "It's an informed collaboration, more productive and pleasant than ones with people who don't have the depth of knowledge about a genre they have."

Fremantle is discussing additional product concepts with GSN, both new and familiar, Boden said.

 

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