Television. The Format king
By Kate Bulkley
John de Mol the co-founder of Endemol, the producer synonymous with Big Brother, is expected to bid for his old firm when its parent Telefónica puts it up for sale. Kate Bulkley profiles the reality show legend
The size of John de Mol’s success means he’s an easy target. The man whose creation redefined television for the 21st century is as rich as Croesus, runs a production empire that extends across the globe, heads a network in his native Holland and is rarely out of the gossip pages. Now there is speculation that he may attempt to buy back the company he co-created, Endemol.
When de Mol pitches an idea, TV channels listen. When de Mol’s investment company buys a stake in a producer, everybody sits up and takes notice. But amid all this someone will say: “Well, what has he done since Big Brother?”
Yes, Big Brother. It introduced the 21st century’s fascination with reality TV to a global stage; it has caused street riots and parliamentary debates; it even made a star out of Jade Goody.
And of course it was the show that, when combined with the heady days of the dot-com boom, drove Telefónica to pay a staggering $7bn to buy the production company behind it, Endemol. The producer is now about to go under the hammer again, with a potential bid from de Mol, who recently increased his stake in the company to 5.1%.
Given his track record, the what-has-he-done-for-TV-lately syndrome is probably sour grapes.
When de Mol and his partner, Joop van den Ende, sold the production company that combined their names and created their personal fortunes in 2000 to the Spanish telco, de Mol stayed on and continued to work inside Tele-fónica’s embrace for several years.
However, it was clear that no longer being top dog in the corporate kennel rubbed him up the wrong way.
According to Peter Bazalgette’s book Billion Dollar Game, the table in de Mol’s office where Big Brother was crafted by a group of creatives was shaped like a rocket so that there was only one head seat, and that was where de Mol sat.
A consummate salesman with an ability to churn out risk-taking ideas time and time again, de Mol doesn’t like the limelight and chaffed under the market and press examination that came following Endemol’s flotation on the Dutch stockmarket in late 1996.
According to Billion Dollar Game, one of the reasons de Mol favoured selling to Telefónica over a rival offer from Dutch telco KPN was because the Spanish telco wanted to de-list the shares allowing de Mol to escape the scrutiny of the “detested analysts”.
Six years later de Mol is one among many potential bidders looking to buy Endemol back from the Spanish. Of course, the price tag will be nowhere near the $7bn Tele-fónica paid – everyone recognises that was a crazy internet bubble price – but the furore over alleged racism in the UK’s latest Big Brother house, has, if anything, increased interest in the production company’s future.
If de Mol does bid for Endemol it certainly won’t be because the 51-year-old, chain-smoking entrepreneur has a sentimental attachment to the company he co-founded. “John is not into nostalgia. That’s not his thing,” says one European media executive who has known de Mol for years.
Whether de Mol gets his baby Endemol back or not, one thing is sure: John de Mol cannot be ignored.
In the UK he owns a 10% stake in Shed Productions plus a 27% share in RDF Media. This could position him to lead a wave of further consolidation among UK indie producers. “He is a market force,” says Sanjay Wadhwani, a director at Ingenious Ventures.
The reasoning behind his stakes in Shed and RDF don’t necessarily mean de Mol is set on leading a UK indie consolidation effort.
His game plan may be simply financial, similar to when he bought a stake in Bob the Builder owner Hit Entertainment, subsequently sold at a handsome profit when the pre-school specialist was sold to Apax.
David Frank, CEO of RED Media, says that Cyrte Investments, the investment vehicle owned by de Mol and NIBC bank, it is not interested in increasing the stake in the Wife Swap producer above 30%. “They have been very supportive,” says Frank.
“John de Mol has probably forgotten more about TV production than I or a lot of people will ever know,” says Paul Richards, a media analyst at Numis Securities in London. “He probably spotted that RDF and Shed were undervalued and is playing a long-term game.
“But alternatively he may use his influence to bring the two groups together and perhaps roll in other businesses as well. In the UK, the indie production sector is a pretty straightforward roll-up strategy because that is the best way to cope with the fads and fashions of TV production.”
An obsession with public taste
One thing de Mol is clearly obsessed with is programmes. From an early age as a music producer in Holland, he has had an impressively consistent Midas touch and along the way has challenged a lot of social mores. One of de Mol’s hits from the early 1990s, Dream Marriage, featured couples being married live on TV.
Locking people together in a house for weeks at a time (Big Brother) also of course pushed the TV envelope, as did challenging people to scare themselves half to death (Fear Factor).
It is easy to forget that all the commercial broadcasters in Germany turned Big Brother down as “too risky” when de Mol first pitched it. Only when Dutch station Veronica proved the show’s popularity did the Germans come back wanting to buy it, forking out a lot more than de Mol’s initial price tag.
Despite his exhibitionist-style programmes, de Mol is a very private person. His life centers around his work and his social life is largely limited to his work contacts.
“John is not in the business of liking people,” says a media executive who worked for de Mol for years. But this personal distance apparently disappears when programme ideas are the topic of conversation.
“He has a fantastically creative mind,” says Gerhard Zeiler, CEO of RTL Group. “He is one of a very few producers who thinks in formats. Other producers can think of good programmes but John thinks radically and in a bold enough way to come up with radical and bold things.”
Since leaving Endemol, de Mol’s new production arm, Talpa Media, is making inroads and recently opened a Los Angeles office to add to operations in Holland and Sweden.
The Talpa format that has achieved the most international traction is The Golden Cage, a reality show panned by critics as a diluted take on Big Brother. However, US Network ABC recently hired Talpa to produce a US version.
In Holland, de Mol decided to become a broadcaster, buying commercial market leader Radio 538 and launching Talpa TV, latterly renamed Tien (Dutch for 10), into Holland’s already crowded airwaves.
De Mol has spent an estimated 250m poaching household names like talk-show hosts Barend & Van Dorp from rival RTL and securing Dutch Premier League soccer highlights for Tien. But so far the channel has struggled.
Over the first month of this year, Tien managed an average 6% audience share, only half of the 10% it promised advertisers when it debuted in August 2005.
De Mol’s expertise may not be in broadcasting, but any suggestion that he might close Tien is dismissed by observers. They say that having a channel (and a radio station, for that matter) is not about making money, it’s about being in the game and being able to showcase new formats and other programme ideas.
Certainly de Mol always seems to have a headful of programme ideas – the only uncertainty is which producer or broadcaster can can best put them into practice, and therefore where he will put his money. There is no doubt, however, that Endemol offers a much larger canvas for de Mol than a portfolio of UK indies.