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The Missing Link


Last fall, Weakest Link was launched on the BBC daytime schedule. "It's obvious this is a serious show," Ben said, coming to the edge of his seat, "like this has become a major thing."

MIP-TV, the international television market in Cannes, is where the Morris agents, representing the BBC -- Ben from New York, Greg Lipstone from L.A., Hans Schiff from London -- start the bidding.

Now, what is being sold is not entirely clear, other than that the buyer will be able to make a game show similar to the BBC's game show without the BBC suing. But with a few tweaks and set changes, you could probably safely do that anyway. Really, it's something larger that you're buying. You're buying vibe; you're buying heat. You're buying, Ben said, "format security." Whatever that means.

You have Time Warner's Telepictures bidding; you have NBC and Sony; you have Jeff Sagansky's Pax stations; you have Miramax going crazy and Harvey heading over the top.

But I realized, listening to Ben eagerly explain it, that it would be naïve to assume that format is just heat, or organization and arrangement, or look and feel, or dramatic structure.

Format is, as importantly, a business plan -- it's a way to rationally apply the system of production, distribution, and financing.

For one thing, by licensing the show in this way rather than, say, doing a deal with an American television-production company (Universal, for instance, or Telepictures, or Miramax), the network owns the show. Networks, trying to get themselves out of the network business, are plunging headlong into the ancillary-market-distribution game -- they need shows to sell, product to syndicate. And then, because networks are part of vastly broader media enterprises, which is called vertical integration, there are all kinds of more or less creative ways of financing. Sometimes you can take synergy to the bank.

It was Sagansky who first got excited about Weakest Link. He was willing to commit right away to producing and running thirteen shows for Pax, which is really an independent mini-network. This enthusiasm was convenient, because Pax's major shareholder is NBC, which, because it didn't have a big reality show and was still hopelessly mired in sitcom/hour-drama antiquity, was the logical and hoped-for buyer of Weakest Link.

So, if Pax was willing to take thirteen episodes, NBC's downside was covered. Pax would pay for it and run it, even if, worst-case, NBC decided Weakest Link was a dog.

Then, too, you had another NBC-related company -- NBC Enterprises and Syndication -- that was interested. Ed Wilson, a bluff golfer type, who had just come over from CBS syndication to head the company (he was in New York from Burbank for Upfront week -- before I knew it, I was sitting next to him at dinner at Mr. Chows on Ben's invitation), was next onboard for Weakest Link. He was willing to do the distribution of the show from daytime market to daytime market. In other words, NBC Enterprises would distribute Weakest Link the way Oprah is distributed -- you syndicate it, selling it station by station without regard to a specific network. Only in this instance, the network itself would be doing the syndication (in effect, creating another network -- go figure).

Bringing it all together, in January, Jeff Zucker was moved over from the Today show to run NBC Entertainment and Weakest Link became a prime-time-schedule lifeline for him -- the difference, in fact, between a good season and a desperate one. Effortlessly, he had a twice-weekly prime-time show; what's more, the show was sold into Canada and other markets, including, even, back into the U.K. On top of that, there is the five-times-a-week daytime version, produced and licensed (re-licensed, if you will) by the network, which is sold into the first-run syndication market (i.e., the network is taking a piece of this business, which in the past it never had). And then there's the back-end merchandising -- Millionaire, for instance, has made $50 million on a CD-rom version. The pieces of the puzzle do fall into place.

I keep seeing Ben Silverman at dinner parties; he really is very entertaining. I hear his name everywhere. The other morning, there he was, in a little dot-sketch, in the Wall Street Journal. In some sense, he's like those boy geniuses of the eighties and nineties who invented new financial instruments -- junk bonds and derivatives and whatnot. The discovery and marketing of a new format is really like that. It's creating something that is negotiable and transferable and that people believe in deeply -- it solves all their problems. Now, obviously, there is a certain obsolescence to these formats (with junk bonds you had inevitable bankruptcies). And Ben, of course, is already searching the world for new formats. Variety shows might be a possibility.

The thing about television is that you don't know where it's going. I've sent Ben my reel and we're talking.



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