Nowadays, a lot of shows broadcast on television seem to be the same thing wrapped up in a different bow.  And that’s because, well, they are.  The media industry uses something called format sales in various channels, but they are most obvious in television.  With so many time slots to fill, and a desire to capitalize on what has been successful in the past, shows based on format sales are hard to ignore.

What is a format sale?

A format sale is the framework for a media product. It’s then tweaked and modified to create a Pop Idol logoCredit: show.  It’s commonly paired with localization, taking foreign content and adjusting it for a different market. 

Why use format sales

With all the channels that became available after the introduction of cable, stations developed a need to have something broadcasting 24/7 (one of the reason why news stations like CNN developed).  It’s hard coming up with new ideas all the time, and it may not be worth the effort and cost for shows that are not shown during prime time.   Buying a format saves a station and/or network the time needed to develop a show.  As the format sales offered are typically based off shows that have done well, stations know that they can expect a return on their investment on buying the show. Formats also are easy to link together, making the creation of an audience easy.  Someone who likes a show based on a particular format will most likely other shows based on the same format, and it’s common to see them in a television line up back to back.

Examples of format sales

Who hasn’t heard of American Idol? It’s a format sale based on the British show Pop Idol, and currently there are many shows based on the premise of a talent contest. X Factor, Sing Off, So You Think You Can Dance, even Project Runway and Next Top Model can be considered similar shows.

Survivor LogosCredit: is a long running reality show, which has been filmed in multiple locations here in the States alone, but the original one was first broadcast in Sweden.  To date, it has been adapted by more than 40 countries.  Other shows are based on the idea of a reality game show involving challenges, such as Rat Race, Cowboy U, and Real World.

And lets not forget all the make-over shows, ranging from Extreme Home Makeover to Queer Eye For the Straight Guy to What Not To Wear. Or dating shows.  Or hidden camera shows.  Or Big Brother-esque sets.

That’s not to say it’s only reality shows that follow formats.  Crime shows are an excellent example. CSI, NSIS, and Law & Order have more than one version of the show, each in a different location with a different cast.  And there are multiple cop dramas as well: Rookie Blue, Chicago Code, and Detroit 187.  There are also a lot of crime shows that focus on consultants aiding detectives for various personal reasons Castle, The Mentalist, Psych and Criminal Minds.

It can be hard to distinguish genres from formats, but formats occur within genres.  Genres have conventions that need to be followed - in crime shows red herrings need to placed, some one has to be arrested, and there needs to be a mystery.  Formats are more focused on the structure of the show itself rather on general identifiers, such as how every CSI, be it NYC, Miami, or the orignal, starts with the finding of the body, lab work, questioning people, and then out comes the handcuffs!

Concerns about format sales

While there are advantages of using format sales – creating a show is cheap and viewers can easily find shows they would like to watch, there are some concerns as well.  The main one is the homogenization of the media, especially when shows from the United States are sold to foreign countries without any adjustment, just pure syndication.

While localization does try to combat this, adjusting format sales to local audiences, it doesn’t stop the fact that media across the globe is becoming more and more alike.   Global media, instead of being a mixture of media products by different cultures, is a few forms of media distributed globally. Small, independent cultures are scared of getting lost in the mainstream media being delivered to television sets in small communities.  There is the fear that cultures around the globe are being swallowed, are being forgotten; that cultural imperialism has replaced the thirst for more land and large countries with healthy media industries will take over.

But such concerns don’t seem to affect media producers.  Format sales continue to make their appearance because of their ease, and for the most part audiences don’t mind the practice. They just care if there isn’t enough variety, in which case the media studios find another format to place in front of viewers and fade out the old ones.  For example, a lot of children’s shows have shifted from action cartoons to school dramas. Regardless, there is always something to watch.