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A gold mine of amusing wipeouts

By David Robertson

Dubai beware: there are giant red balls heading your way. The Arabic MBC network, based in Dubai Media City, will broadcast a television game show called Wipeout later this year. Look out for it because Wipeout is a classic of modern television.

The entire show revolves around people falling off things or being hit by things – a gold mine of amusing wipeouts and catastrophes. Put cocky young men and women up against the world's largest obstacle course and the results can be absurd. One of the events, for example, has contestants trying to leap across four giant red balls suspended above a swimming pool. The wipeouts are as spectacular as an Olympic gymnast coming off the high bars. How people are not killed competing in this daft show is a mystery but let us hope that they do not, so we can keep this juvenile gem on our screens.

However, watching people falling over is only one of the things to appreciate about this show. It was created by Endemol, the Dutch TV company that was bought by Goldman Sachs and Mediaset (Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's company) two years ago, and has now been sold to over 18 countries.

Wipeout was initially launched in the United States on the ABC network using an assault course built outside Los Angeles. When the show became an instant hit last year, Endemol started to sell the format to other countries. With so many networks signed up, Endemol realised that it would cost a fortune to build identical assault courses in every country. Far better, the company decided, to build one set and fly the contestants there.

So, every week of the two-month run of this show, Endemol has flown 20 British lunatics to its set in Argentina to contest the UK version of Wipeout. It has also flown contestants from France, German, Japan etc. making Wipeout one of the first media events to conform to lean manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing is one of those buzz phrases that litter the business world but its basic tenet is the elimination of unnecessary processes and duplication. The single production site also allows TV to become globalised while retaining local languages – something that Hollywood imports do not do.

This obviously only works for some shows and the biggest loss is probably a live audience. After all, there are unlikely to be too many Argentineans who will turn up every day to watch a show in a different language. However, globalised production is an idea that is likely to stick around and we may see many more game shows like Wipeout hitting our screens.

Wipeout also demonstrates another trend that is now prevalent in the media world – that of format trading. If a show is successful in one country, there is a high probability that it will also appeal somewhere else. This obviously raises interesting questions about just how unique our cultures are when Germans, Arabs and Chinese laugh or cry at the same thing, but that is something we can leave to the anthropologists to discuss.

From a business perspective, format trading offers potentially huge rewards if you can develop an idea that proves popular. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was originally spawned in the UK but has now been sold to over 100 countries making it the most popular TV franchise ever. Indeed, Millionaire had transcended TV and become the source material for the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Endemol is particularly adept at format trading, franchising brands such as Deal or No Deal and Big Brother around the world.

But the trade in formats carries an inherent risk because it is much easier to pinch an idea than a physical item and accusations of plagiarism in the franchised TV sector are becoming common. Endemol's Wipeout, for example, is currently the subject of a lawsuit that alleges the show rips off Tokyo Broadcasting's Takeshi's Castle.

I suspect that only the lawyers will win in these spats but if we put aside the occasional legal difficulty, franchising is obviously good for TV networks as it means they can buy shows that have already proven successful in other countries. This limits the risk of a failed investment but also raises the prospect that TV will become homogenised. 

- David Robertson is a Business Correspondent of The Times of London.