Exploiting Idols - A case study of international TV formats trading in the absence of intellectual property protection

Authors: Kretschmer, M. and Singh, S.

Editors: Burnett, R. and Zwaan, A.J.

Publisher: Duke University Press

Place of Publication: Durham


Television formats have become a major export industry for Britain and the United States (who together account for nearly two thirds of all format hours broadcast annually worldwide). Yet, there is no such thing as a television format right under copyright law. Any producer is free to develop game, reality and talent shows that are based on similar ideas.

This case study documents the exploitation of one such format, Idols, based on semi-structured interviews with format sellers and buyers at international media trade fairs, and senior managers at Fremantlemedia, the television production company that developed Idols into one of most successful global format franchises (broadcast in 43 territories). The results reveal a combination of legal and non-legal strategies that in effect create an intellectual property (IP) regime that stands in place of formal television format rights (“IP without IP”). Empirically, format developers use three groups of strategies to exploit TV formats internationally:

(1) TV format producers formalize and sell know-how which cannot be easily gleaned from watching the show. This knowledge may include how to source contestants and organise audience participation, as well as specific production elements. The format is codified in a so-called ‘production bible’, supplied under confidentiality agreements and licences, and supervised in implementation by ‘flying producers’.

(2) Careful management of the brand image makes it difficult to copy a show successfully. Sub-strategies include the registration of relevant trade marks, localisation of the brand, and extending the brand by merchandising.

(3) Having an established distribution networks and international production bases allow for speed to market, and retaliatory measures against copycat producers. Retaliation includes the bilateral threat of non-supply of other programmes, and negative reputation effects in the social network constructed around trade fairs.

Source: Manual

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