By Tim Kroenert

Among all of Australian television’s idiosyncratic, iconic comic duos, Kath & Kim seemed likely candidates for an American-style makeover.

It was less predictable that Maggie and Arthur Beare – the mentally fraying senior citizen and her long-suffering adult son portrayed by Ruth Cracknel and Garry McDonald in the ABC’s classic series Mother and Son – might also be set to journey stateside 15 years after its last episode was filmed.

Sure enough, in March this year ABC Commercial announced that it had optioned the 1980s –1990s sitcom as a format to Los Angeles-based Alchemy Television.

Mother and Son is a well-regarded and proven success of a show,” ABC Commercial sales manager, formats, Katherine McMillan, tells INSIDEFILM. “It is such a classic show that you can see why the US has picked it up.”

Local versions of Mother and Son have previously been produced in the UK, Chile, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey and Greece. But for a format to be optioned to the US 15 years after it finished its original run on Australian screens is quite a boon for the ABC.

“It’s somewhat unusual [for an older format to be optioned],” McMillan says. “But these days, internationally, they do seem to be brushing up a lot of classic shows and bringing them back to the screen.”

Mother and Son is one of a handful of notable incursions by Australian content into the US market this year.

An American version of Seven’s comic quiz show Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation is also in the works, with CBS working out the finer details with Granada USA (the format for the quiz show was developed within Granada Australia).

The ABC has been particularly active. In addition to Mother and Son, ABC Commercial has optioned the black comedy series Review to Zodiak Entertainment for the UK, Denmark and Belgium, and to RDF Media’s Pangea Studios in the US.

Additionally, it has signed a raft of options for panel-style comedy The Gruen Transfer, including Endemol France, Fremantle Portugal, ONTV Spain, Nordisk Film Denmark, Rapid Blue South Africa plus sales to UK and Italy.

While the optioning of Australian formats to international markets is a steady business, it’s more a feather in creatives’ cap than a cash cow for the local industry. Generally, says McMillan, a network would be happy to sell a handful of formats each year.

“It’s sort of unusual,” says McMillan. “You’ve got to have something unique in order to have it picked up. Of course,” she adds, “the big one that people know internationally is Kath & Kim” (a program that can fairly claim to be both “unique” and “unusual”).

But optioning the format is only half the battle. “If it goes to a commission and it’s picked up for a long-running series, it can be lucrative,” says McMillan. “But it would have to be successful and long-running. That’s the main way that you make money.”

Of the formats ABC Commercial has recently optioned, at the time of writing only The Gruen Transfer had been commissioned to go into development in one territory.

Not that McMillan will mention which territory. “With formats, people keep information under wraps a lot more than with a completed program sale,” she says. “Broadcasters don’t want their competition to know what they’re developing, and both production companies and broadcasters often don’t want anyone else to know what they’ve bought.”

And if the format is optioned, but no commission is forthcoming? “If that happens it means you’re free to sell that show to another production company or another broadcaster within that territory.”

In the world of international television content, a lot of wheeling and dealing takes place at MIPTV, the annual Cannes international entertainment content market. But McMillan says format sales are more likely to take place during the course of the year thanks to mutual vigilance between producers and broadcasters.

“People will read in the international press about programs that are coming up, and you just have to be in contact with those producers and broadcasters all the time,” she says. “Formats move very fast, because everyone wants those cutting edge ideas.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of INSIDEFILM magazine. Subscribe now and receive a double pass to Moonlight Cinema:

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