Archive for Thursday, February 15, 2001

Producer rides TV’s reality wave

Creator of ‘Big Brother’ made his mark with emotional European shows

February 15, 2001


— A fancy platter of tangerine wedges, pineapple chunks and other juicy tidbits sits all day on the desk in front of TV producer John de Mol, the father of "Big Brother."

"I'm trying to eat a lot of fruit," he explains, a little self-consciously.

But it's midafternoon and de Mol has barely touched the healthy snacks. Instead he opts for the guilty pleasure of one cigarette after another.

De Mol, a former pirate radio disc jockey, built Endemol Entertainment into one of Europe's biggest TV production companies using a similar formula: avoiding the highbrow, "good for you" fare usually associated with European television in favor of addictive ratings-grabbers with titillating titles like "Fear Factor" and "Chains of Love."

The 7-year-old company has affiliates in 17 countries and earned about $43 million on sales of about $450 million in 1999 the last time it released results. Spain's Telefonica SA took it over last year in a stock deal that valued Endemol at more than $5 billion.

This month, Endemol Entertainment USA is moving into upgraded offices on Sunset Boulevard as part of de Mol's push to become a "substantial" Hollywood player as well.

Yet his first major foray across the Atlantic, producing "Big Brother" for CBS last year, returned only lukewarm ratings, a big disappointment for the smash voyeuristic format that made its debut in Holland in September 1999 and hype-scotched across Europe last year.

De Mol blames poor casting (CBS' fault, he said, not his) and a belated recognition that even in an age of global media and entertainment, local tastes in storytelling still have to be catered to.

"That's a mistake we're not going to make a second time," he insisted in a recent interview at Endemol's stark white office complex just outside Amsterdam.

The son of a popular Dutch crooner, de Mol spent a lot of time growing up in radio stations with his father. "Even in those days, I found studios to be something magic," he said.

He started working in radio as a teen-ager in the 1970s, including a stint on a pirate station broadcasting from a boat in the North Sea, then segued into a dull job editing soccer video for Dutch public television.

It wasn't until he worked on a live broadcast of a Miss Holland pageant, though, that he saw a future for himself in television.

"There was something that grabbed me, a pleasant form of nerves 10 minutes before we went on air," he said. A few years later, he left to form his own company. His first break: producing a John Denver concert for Dutch television. But there were several years of losses until a 1989 deal with Rupert Murdoch turned things around.

In 1994 de Mol merged his company with his main Dutch competitor, Joop van den Ende Productions, forming Endemol. They started selling concepts to producers in neighboring Germany, a market that's eight times bigger than Holland. When others "ruined" them with "bad productions," de Mol decided to rent his own studios and produce the shows himself.

Van den Ende has since left the company, leaving de Mol as president and "chief creative officer."

De Mol offered no apologies for "market-driven entertainment."

"What the Americans are sending around the world with 'Jerry Springer' is not really (the best of) American culture" either, he noted.

The style he describes as "emot-tainment" shows that aim for tears or cheers translates well to other countries because they appeal to basic emotions, he said.

And while he admits his shows are exploitative, he says contestants know what they're signing up for.

"As long as you don't hurt people, that's where we draw the line," he said.

Picture a reality show with 10 people but only nine parachutes on an airplane that's going to crash. "If we wanted to make a show like that, we would find the people to put in the plane, no problem," he said. "But you'd never get it on the air, and I think that's good."

That doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy seeing how far he can go, especially as he seeks to make a mark in the U.S. market.

"Chains of Love," where a person is chained to four prospective dates for a week and has to decide which one to go out with, moved to UPN for airing this spring after NBC bailed out at the last minute.

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