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In Import-Export Business, Producers Put Stock in Trade

Signs of strength in the booming format trade in the Americas can be found on both sides of the Rio Grande, with more U.S. networks adapting programming ideas from south of the border than ever before, and Latin American broadcasters acquiring more formats.

That is generally good news for U.S. program distributors who have seen series pushed out of prime slots on major broadcasters, explains Elie Wahba, senior VP Latin America and Caribbean, Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has sold scripted formats based on The Wonder Years to Colombia and is adapting Modern Family in Chile. “Selling formats will be increasingly important for us,” he says.

Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of local production throughout Latin America is creating new programming concepts that will be catching the attention of U.S. buyers at NATPE 2014, which begins Jan. 27 in Miami Beach.

U.S. broadcasters have been open to formats from the region since the success of an adaptation of the Colombian hit Ugly Betty on ABC, but the deal-making in the run-up to NATPE seems more heated than ever. This is the case for both for the U.S. Spanish-language market, where a growing Hispanic population and the launch of new networks has boosted demand, and English-language networks, with ABC Family and Lifetime each airing formats from Latin America and ABC developing a Peruvian format from Sierra/Engine Television, to name a few.

Much of this reflects generally positive economic news from Latin America that has boosted TV ads and local production. Terrestrial TV advertising in the region jumped from $9.5 billion in 2008 to nearly $14.2 billion in 2013, according to PwC; the total is expected to hit $19.6 billion in 2017.

Rags to Riches

For sales to Latin America, “talent competition shows are still at the top of the list,” in terms of demand for formats in Latin America, reports Adrian Santucho, CEO of FremantleMedia Mexico, who also oversees U.S. Hispanic and pan-regional productions. In 2013 they produced shows such as Project Runway Latin America, Idols Puerto Rico and Boxing Glove and the eighth season of El Rival Mas Debil (Weakest Link) for Televisa in Mexico, Santucho says.

“Competition shows have a natural place in Latin America,” adds Fred Medina, executive VP at BBC Worldwide for Latin America and U.S. Hispanic, which has produced formats such as Dancing With the Stars and Weakest Link in the region. “Like the classic telenovelas, they have a rags to riches story line.”

While Mexico, Brazil and Argentina remain the largest markets, Paul Gilbert, senior VP of international formats, CBS Studios International, notes they are seeing more interest from countries such as Ecuador, Panama and Uruguay. “It is great to see some of the smaller territories going after big, more expansive shows,” says Gilbert, who says CBS Studios International has long sold its large format library into the region.

Rising Latin Stars

Programming strategies are also shifting. “They are starting to look outside the standard telenovela for groundbreaking formats and scripted fare,” says Keren Shahar, head of distribution and acquisitions at Israel’s Keshet International, which recently sold its Rising Star interactive TV format to ABC in the U.S. and Globo in Brazil (see a report on the opportunity and challenges ahead for ABC’s ‘Rising Star’). Keshet is also close to format deals for its scripted Prisoner of War series, the basis of Homeland on Showtime in the U.S.

In general, scripted formats are a harder sell, given the cost of producing them and the difficulties of adapting them to local markets. But Alexander Marin, senior VP, distribution, Latin America, Sony Pictures Television says that changing audience tastes are making them more appealing.

While Sony continues to produce and sell popular formats such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, it has also been ramping up its scripted productions, most recently offering 62 episodes of a Spanish-language version of Breaking Bad—titled Metástasis— in Colombia. It has been widely sold throughout the region and placed with UniMás in the U.S.

“The viewers have become more refined,” Marin says, adding that “the productions we make are designed to be complementary to what the big producers of Spanish-language series create…We’ve tried to make TV shows that they are not necessarily set up to create.”

More diverse tastes are also expanding the range of programming concepts that can be exported back to the U.S. “As multiplatform distribution opens up opportunities to produce content, production is tripling and quadrupling so there are more formats to look at and it widens the scope of opportunities,” says Chris Philip, CEO, Sierra/Engine Television, which is working on developing a Peruvian format of My Problem With Women for ABC, and is close to deals on other formats.


One notable example of the expanding interest in selling formats from Latin America into the U.S. English-language market is Televisa USA, a division of Mexican TV giant Televisa, which creates 90,000- plus hours of programming each year and is the world’s largest Spanish- language producer. (For more on Televisa, see special section for a profile of the company’s chairman and CEO, Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award honoree Emilio Azcárraga Jean.)

Televisa USA operates as a full studio, developing and funding new projects from start to finish, though it currently doesn’t own its own U.S. production facilities. In pitching ideas to U.S. networks, Michael Garcia, chief creative officer, says that while they can draw on Televisa’s huge library, they often focus on concepts that weren’t necessarily huge telenovelas in Mexico. “We tend to look at things that are a little out of the ordinary [in Mexico] and have a strong conceptual hook for the U.S. market,” he says. Current Televisa USA coproductions include Chasing Life for ABC Family and Devious Maids for Lifetime.