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The man behind the camera

In 1979, struggling Dutch TV producer John de Mol got his break selling the European broadcast rights to a John Denver concert in Amsterdam to television outlets throughout Europe. Now, 20 years later, de Mol, 45, is the chairman of Endemol Entertainment, one of Europe's top television-production companies and the home of more than 400 television formats, including 60-plus game shows.

This week, de Mol is launching one of his company's most successful European formats, "Big Brother," on CBS, and, if all goes well, de Mol could quickly become one of the busiest producers in all of Hollywood.

The format has been a smash hit in Holland, Spain and Germany, and, by the end of the year, "Big Brother" clones will have been produced in more than 20 countries. It debuts in the UK July 17.

"Big Brother" is one of more than a half dozen similar reality formats that Endemol has created in the last three years. Although he didn't produce "Survivor," the show's buzz helps Endemol's "Big Brother," which begins July 5 and runs five nights a week through Sept. 30. Endemol is hot property, and every network from NBC to UPN is looking to get a piece of its next hit. Dutch series like "The Hairdresser" and "The Bus" will likely be on American television screens by midseason.

Six-year-old Endemol Entertainment is in the process of being acquired by Spanish telephone company Telefonica for a reported $5 billion.

De Mol sat down with Broadcasting & Cable's Joe Schlosser to discuss "Big Brother" and everything else that may come with it.

How hard has it actually been getting into Hollywood?

I think we started really trying to sell shows here in America five or six years ago. What happened in the beginning, we basically always had a certain level of interest for a couple of our formats, and after a long, long time, when finally the moment would come from someone that had to make a decision, they would ultimately choose to go with what I call talk show number 289 or sitcom 375 or whatever, rather than having the guts to do something new.

On the other hand, I understand why, because this is a big country, and the bigger the country, the smaller the risk they are willing to take.

What has changed the tide for your emergence in America? Was it the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? at ABC?

I think it has to be Millionaire. We should all thank [ABC producer] Michael Davies, because he really opened up the doors for us.

Now I think we have the interest of a lot of stations, including the networks. I've been visiting with ABC, NBC; I'm seeing the FOX people around Fourth of July. I've seen UPN, and I've met with a lot of other people, including syndicators. When I say I'm seeing them, that is a result of the fact that they want to see me.

Is there a sense of urgency to act now, while the iron is hot, especially here in America?

Well, I think the irons are extremely warm, I would say. When Big Brother becomes a success, I'm confident that they will turn very hot. And that means probably that there is a fair chance a great number of formats will come to America.

How many shows do you think will come over here if that's the case?

It's difficult to predict, but I think, if Big Brother works, that we will have a fair shot at getting three, four, five, six formats produced by us.

CBS has an option to do another Big Brother and said it could be up and running again in about two months. How does it work in Holland?

In Holland, the station that broadcast Big Brother [it ended Dec. 30] enjoyed a big success and wanted us to keep going on with it in January.

But we refused to do that, because my feeling was that Big Brother should be a yearly event, where everybody is waiting for it after eight months off the air. We can see whether I'm right or wrong soon, because Big Brother starts in September in Holland again for series two. In terms of other countries, it varies. We'll have to see what transpires in America.

How is Endemol doing financially? Will this year be the best ever for the company, and is it because of what is transpiring with Big Brother?

Revenue of Endemol this year, our book year ends the end of July, is about $550 million, and it's going to be the highest ever. Next year will be substantially higher. We actually said when we went public 3½years ago, that we would double our turnover and profit in five years. We actually did it in 3½years. I don't think we are finished yet (smiling).

There was an out-and-out bidding war for Big Brother here among the networks. How did that go down?

It was not a matter of money in the end. Two weeks before we closed the deal with CBS, the financial levels had been set for Big Brother. It was more about the commitments of the station or network in terms of broadcasting guarantees, marketing and those sorts of things.

So, what we found was that a lot of the networks were not fully convinced that the way we scheduled Big Brother in Europe was the right way for the American market. We felt a daily version of Big Brother was essential for the format. So what we did at NATPE, when nearly every broadcast and cable company was basically chasing us, we said 'OK, we'll turn the situation around. We will make one page with things we felt we needed to have happen in terms of broadcasting schedules, timing and this and that. Here it is; the first one that put his or her signature on the paper has Big Brother.' And it was Les Moonves.

Do you worry about someone coming out and killing themselves or anything like that on the show?

When we developed this show over the course of two years, we thought about everything-from playing god to people going out of their minds. Every psychiatrist in Holland, whether they were asked to or not, gave their opinions on how dangerous this thing could be. We had a group of psychologists advising us, telling us what to do and what not to do. They helped us oversee our casting on the Dutch version, and we have followed the same pattern each time. We take it very seriously and monitor everything as closely as possible.

Technically, you said, this is the best version of Big Brother. How so?

We have the latest state-of-the-art equipment; we have Sony as our partner. They basically developed two years ago the whole software infrastructure to find out how you tape 28 cameras, how you get your materials together, how you store, it how you edit it, etc., etc. We are improving after every experience. So, after Germany, we found out how we could do a few things better. The setup of the house itself is the best in terms of camera angles and layout.

How did you get into the reality business?

Actually, it was three years ago, and it was an accident. Three years ago, we were approached by one of the public broadcasters in Holland who wanted us to create a new kind of show. So I put together a creative team, and we started brainstorming and thinking of different ideas.

After many hours and one long, unfruitful evening, we finished our drinks, and suddenly one of the guys brought up an article that he had read in an American magazine about the Biosphere II. That intrigued me so much that I kept on asking about it. We had already been bouncing around an idea that would be based on a sabbatical year, if you could build a format out of that. That was still in the back of my mind, and then the guy told me about Biosphere II, and we combined that, spent a few years working on the idea, and Big Brother was born.

First Big Brother was called The Golden Cage, and it was for one year. For all kinds of reasons, we decided to bring it back to 100 days-mainly for financial reasons. Then, the basics came about, and it took us two years to develop Big Brother to what it is today.

Is America the most important market for Big Brother, for you and the show?

Absolutely, because if you have a program in Europe, and you have success in Holland, it's fine, but nobody knows about it. If you have success in Spain, well maybe a few more countries will start asking about it. If you have success in Germany, it becomes interesting. But if Big Brother becomes a hit in the U.S., then the whole world will hear it.