A Tale of Two Series

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Today was the first day of Up Fronts in New York. For those who are unaware, this is when the major US networks present their Fall schedules to the advertising community.

NBC and Fox both announced their respective schedules today. Two interesting things to emerge, particularly from a UK perspective, was how high Fox’s expectations seem to be of “The X Factor” and how a failed UK comedy, “Free Agents”, has managed to find its US adaptation on NBC’s much-vaulted new schedule.

An Unhappy Outing on C4

 

Let’s firstly look at Fox, who have slightly less time to fill than their competitors (as their 10pm slot goes to News). Whilst they have gone for some heavyweight titles in sci-fi epic “Terra Nova” (about a futuristic family who go back in time 150 million years to correct the damage done to Earth and save the world) and JJ Abrams’ action-drama “Alcatraz”, the centerpiece of Fox’s presentation was the much-hyped “The X Factor”.

On one level, this makes a lot of sense. The original UK format entered its seventh season in 2010 backed by a continuous rise in ratings every year. This culminated in the highest rated telecast of 2010, where “The X Factor” finale results edition attracted 17.7m viewers, beating even England’s World Cup game against Germany.

The UK has embraced the format for a long time, recognizing its more sophisticated nuances when compared to the “Idol” format, which does not have judges competing against each other. With “American Idol” ranked the number one show in the U.S. since 2005, it would seem only natural for its successor to take over the mantle.

However, “The X Factor” in the U.S. faces a number of challenges that may not seem obvious at first glance. Simon Cowell it has been proven was not the sole reason viewers were attracted to Idol. This season, the show has performed excellently without the judge who was once deemed irreplaceable. The brand of Idol it seems has usurped the brand of Cowell.

The other key element is NBC’s “The Voice”. In its freshman season, the show managed to rank number 3 in 18-49’s for the week ending 8th May. This puts it ahead of “Glee” and “Modern Family”, and only behind the two editions of “American Idol”. “The Voice” may have a different hook to “The X Factor”, but it takes some of the best elements of that format and effectively evolves it. The consequence of all this could be that come September, Simon Cowell’s return may not roar as the ratings monster Fox are hoping. Of course, it is likely to get well sampled, but if it ends up as a middling performer, not nearing the levels of “American Idol”, will that be perceived as a failure?

Flop on C4

“Free Agents” originally aired in the UK on Channel 4 in February and March of 2009. Its final episode garnered a lackluster 0.7 million viewers, which was roughly 52% of the timeslot average. By any measure, this is a failure, as evidenced by no re-commission. This awkward romantic comedy, about a recently divorced and homeless talent agent who thinks his colleague is his soul mate, will be airing on Wednesdays at 8.30pm right before the Kathy Bates legal drama, “Harry’s Law”.

Like all US comedies, it will need to find a way to sustain itself beyond the six episodes it aired in the UK. Naturally, NBC recognizes what it requires to make such adaptations work – proven by the long-term success of “The Office”.

But given that this series failed to work in its home market, if it does succeed in the US, it could well be unprecedented. Very few reformatted dramas and comedies succeed in the U.S., and of the ones that do all had significant acclaim in their domestic market. Success for “Free Agents” could alter the way shows are sold into the U.S.

Take note international producers in possession of shows that have flopped: you can always have a second chance in America!

 

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