TV Format Mogul: Reg Grundy's Transnational Career

TV Format Mogul: Reg Grundy's Transnational Career

by Albert Moran

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Since the late 1990s, when broadcasters began adapting such television shows as Big Brother, Survivor, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for markets around the world, the global television industry has been struggling to come to grips with the prevalence of program franchising across international borders. In TV Format Mogul, Albert Moran


Since the late 1990s, when broadcasters began adapting such television shows as Big Brother, Survivor, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for markets around the world, the global television industry has been struggling to come to grips with the prevalence of program franchising across international borders. In TV Format Mogul, Albert Moran traces the history of this phenomenon through the lens of Australian producer Reg Grundy’s transnational career.

Program copycatting, Moran shows, began long before its most recent rise to prominence. Indeed, he reveals that the practice of cultural and commercial cloning from one place to another, and one time to another, has occurred since the early days of broadcasting. Beginning in the late 1950s, Grundy brought non-Australian shows to Australian audiences, becoming the first person to take local productions to an overseas market. By following Grundy’s career, Moran shows how adaptation and remaking became the billion-dollar business they are today. An exciting new contribution from Australia’s foremost scholar of television, TV Format Mogul will be a definitive history of program franchising.

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TV Format Mogul

Reg Grundy's Transnational Career

By Albert Moran

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-623-4


The TV Format Mogul


The aim of this study is to investigate the career in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere of television producer Reg Grundy. That historical trajectory is analysed systematically in the next thirteen chapters, which trace Grundy's commercial path from his beginnings to his life as a businessman to his retirement in 1995. This passage was a remarkable one for a broadcaster who spent most of his working life in Australia before extending his television production empire into other places. Even so, Grundy's rise depended on particular business and cultural circumstances that were already in play. It also followed a pattern in media industries that is repeated elsewhere, to a greater or lesser extent. The study's title highlights this continuity by addressing Grundy as a particular kind of media magnate. For, unlike some other tycoons of publishing and broadcasting such as William Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and, in Australia, Kerry Packer, Grundy did not benefit from a media inheritance from a communications magnate father; rather, he started from scratch. All the same, the would-be entrepreneur was intelligent enough to recognize the crucial importance of television programme remaking as a means of high-volume, fast-turnover content output. Long before the term 'format' was used to describe this practice, Grundy had embarked on a television business career that would see him become one of a small group of international TV format moguls, and certainly the first (and to date the only) TV format mogul to originate in Australia. In this chapter, I establish the analytical framework for the history that follows. I explain the terms 'format' and 'television format', and discuss the implications of the label 'mogul'. What is a TV format mogul, and why is the name applied to Reg Grundy? There are solid historical and sociological reasons for labelling the rise of this Australian television producer in such a way. I offer a preliminary answer by briefly explaining who Grundy is and why he warrants investigation as a TV format mogul.

The television programme format

What, then, is a television format, the entity on which Grundy built a media production empire? I suggest that the term relates to the identification of a body of practical knowledge associated with a programme, formula or structure that facilitates its remaking in another place and time. This view is echoed by other recent writers on the subject. According to Chalaby (2009: 40–41):

Formats or shows sold under license for local adaptation are inherently transnational ... since a licence cannot be bought twice in the same territory (for the same period of time), a programme becomes a format only once it is adapted outside its country of origin.

For Bourdin (2011: 166–70), the term designates that which is a 'standard, replicable, internationally marketable, and potentially successful formula'.

Somewhat disconcertingly, the term 'format' is relatively widely used. It had its origins in the early printing industry, where it was used to refer to a book of a specific size. From there, the term passed into wider use in the twentieth century in particular areas of knowledge, including business, computer science, and the radio and film industries. Even so, 'format' has gained a specific meaning, alongside its more general deployment, in the international television industry over the past quarter century to designate the adaptability of television programs for different audiences in different television settings (Moran 1998: 7–11). Of course, the remaking of programmes in television (and before that, in radio) is an old practice with even more ancient roots in such industries as the book trade, newspaper publishing and the advertising industry. Even so, past practices of programme adaptation and remaking tended to be ad hoc and occasional, so that an agreed-upon term to designate the practice was hardly necessary. When mention was needed, the labels used were frequently those of 'idea' or 'expression'. More recently, as the practice of programme adaptation and remaking has become increasingly systematic and widespread, the term 'format' has been preferred as a way of designating the practice (Bourdin 2011: 16–37; Moran 2009).

Moguls and media

In turn, I have used the term 'mogul' in my title to suggest the range and power associated with a business empire. I might have used other terms such as 'magnate', 'tycoon', 'emperor' or even 'godfather', so why is the label 'mogul' preferred? I take the term from pioneer British media researcher Jeremy Tunstall, who first outlined characteristics of the figure as early as 1970 and more recently has returned to further sociological analysis of the type (see Tunstall 1970: 13–15; Tunstall 2001: 17; Tunstall & Palmer 1991: 17, 105–13; Tunstall & Palmer 2001: 17, 65–70). He suggests the existence of a hierarchy of occupational and professional types in media organizations, based on levels of power and control. At the top of his typology is the media mogul, the self- made owner and operator of one or more media companies. Next comes the media baron, who is a top executive who works for the media mogul. Further down the organizational ladder is the media star, a category requiring little explanation.

Tunstall's explanation of the media mogul is clear and succinct: 'A "media mogul" we define as a person who owns and operates major media companies, who takes entrepreneurial risks, and who conducts these media businesses in a personal or eccentric style' (2001: 2). Further qualities are added to this profile. The media mogul, for instance, has mostly developed a media empire from scratch, building it up through entrepreneurial effort, but also through mergers with and the acquisition of other companies. The figure largely operates in one or several parts of media industries, such as newspaper publishing, but may also own some non-media businesses. Additionally, the media business operated by the mogul can confer a good deal of attention and celebrityhood on others, yet the mogul may have 'a highly distinctive personal publicity stance' (2001: 4). Tunstall suggests that the latter frequently can involve a low-publicity profile, where the media proprietor downgrades publicity, rarely agrees to open-ended interviews and is shy of photographs (2001: 5). Such a bashfulness also has a business dimension: given that the media mogul is mostly self-made and seeks to control public exposure, it is often not surprising to discover that the mogul dabbles in other private companies and pursues business interests in other fields. Additionally, as someone who owns and operates a company, the media mogul takes risks and tends to follow a personal set of hunches.

Two other elements can be added to round out Tunstall's profile. He notes that the figure has an all-consuming interest and involvement in business, which spills over into private domestic life to the point where there is little distinction between the two. Finally, there is the fact that media power also sometimes overflows into the political sphere, where this kind of tycoon often has strong interests and commitments. Tunstall notes that the mogul's political inclinations are likely to be right wing and conservative.

Typical examples of this type of media mogul are not hard to find. Tunstall identifies such captains of media industries as William Randolph Hearst in the United States, Rupert Murdoch internationally and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy as classic instances (Tunstall & Palmer 2001: 65–68). He further identifies a kind of lower rung of media moguls, who are less well known outside specific national settings: they include Axel Springer and the head of the Bertelsmann family in Germany, Robert Hersant in France and Emilia Azcarraga in Mexico (Tunstall 2001: 17). Equally, I would suggest that there are other moguls associated with particular areas of media industries who also warrant attention, even if their power, wealth and influence are no match for the grand moguls listed by Tunstall. Accordingly, this book advances the claims of a particular type of media czar, namely the TV format mogul. In the next twelve chapters, I flesh out this figure through a consideration of the business career of Australian television producer Reg Grundy. The last chapter places this case study of the TV format mogul in the context of the career of several other such tycoons, past and present, to make the case for a general type, as well as further highlighting the particular significance of Grundy for the development of the field of television format adaptation.

Before suggesting the high degree of correspondence between Grundy's industry situation and the features of the mogul as outlined by Tunstall, it is useful to sketch the broad contours of Grundy's broadcasting career as a prelude to the intensive account that follows.

Reg Grundy: a brief outline

Born in Sydney, Australia in 1923, Reg Grundy joined commercial radio as a sports commentator and time salesman (Moran 2004a). He developed a radio game show, Wheel of Fortune, which he took to the Sydney television station TCN9 in 1959. He teamed up with Channel 9 not as a station employee but as an independent producer who would 'package' the quiz-show for the station. Following a trend in Hollywood and US network television, Grundy incorporated himself as a company, Reg Grundy Enterprises, thereby achieving considerable tax savings. The 36-year-old worked as both master of ceremonies and producer on the television version of Wheel of Fortune as he had done with the radio version. The show itself was Grundy's own invention. The new 'packager' soon discovered that he did not have the time or capacity to develop new quiz programmes; instead, realizing that US network television could serve as a ready source of new quiz-show ideas, Grundy began visiting the United States to spot attractive formats for adapting and remaking back in Australia.

During the 1960s, Reg Grundy twice suffered the simultaneous cancellation of all his shows, but by 1970 he had rebounded. His Australian television production empire grew apace. To safeguard itself against programme cancellations, it stepped up its quiz-show output and brought in independent producers to make drama series, telemovies and children's fiction. It also added a very successful drama serial division, with hit series that included The Young Doctors, The Restless Years, Prisoner, Sons and Daughters and Neighbours.

As early as 1972, Reg Grundy planned to expand his production operation to the United States. Beginning in 1980, the company began to move offshore using the cash flow from its Australian operation to bankroll this move. Television systems internationally were undergoing multiplication, commercialization and, in the case of public-service systems, privatization. A US Grundy production office was set up in 1979 and Grundy sold several game shows to US networks for their daytime line-ups. One of the most successful of these was Sale of the Century, a quiz show that originated in the United States, but that that Grundy had copied as early as 1970; Grundy would later purchase Sale of the Century outright and remake it in over a dozen different territories. The Grundy US operation also found itself devising other quiz and game shows, some of which became US network programmes; other versions of the shows were remade in various territories. Although Grundy personally was committed to triumph in the US television market, as if to show that the master's apprentice had come of age, the daytime network market closed up as the growing popularity of talk shows squeezed opportunities to sell quiz shows. Moreover, a spin-off of one of his successful Australian soap operas, Prisoner, which he financed, did poorly in the US syndication market.

The company now known as Grundy Worldwide outside Australia (where it continued to trade as the Grundy Organisation) fared much better in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, South America and parts of Asia. Altogether, it produced quiz shows and dramas in more than twenty countries, so it became very wealthy indeed. In 1995, Reg Grundy sold the company to the UK- based Pearson Television group for US$279 million (A$380 million). It was one of twenty company acquisitions by the group, which eventually was bought by the German Bertelsmann Group, adopting the name FremantleMedia. The Australian branch of the conglomerate was known as Grundy Television from 1995 to 2005, but finally came under the name of the parent company. Why did Grundy sell? There was no heir to carry on the business and the mogul himself was 72 years old at the time. Grundy probably smarted from the US disappointment, and in any case realized that he did not have the war chest to turn his company into a megaconglomerate through merger and acquisition, as did others. Instead, by selling when the company was at the height of its success, he achieved an excellent price with himself still at the helm.

Grundy as a format mogul

Reg Grundy is a media mogul who has operated in the field of television formats. A career review according to Tunstall's yardsticks supports this claim. First, there is the fact that there was no media inheritance with which to get started and no particular background advantage when it came to a broadcasting career. Instead, Grundy started from scratch and built a television empire, largely through his own efforts. He owned and operated what became a major media company in the area of television programme production, especially involving the remaking of formats adapted from elsewhere. In addition, while not a gambler, the Australian-born television entrepreneur frequently was prepared to venture into unknown waters so far as business was concerned, taking triumph and disaster in his stride. Further conforming to Tunstall's model of the media mogul, Grundy mostly operated in the area of television programme production, although he strayed into other business ventures on occasion including briefly contemplating the purchase of an Australian commercial television network in 1992 (Shoebridge 1991).

Likewise, Reg Grundy developed a personal style in business that was characteristic of the media-mogul figure, exemplified by his very low public profile. Family life took a back seat to his business career, often with no suggestion of where one ended and the other began. Several of these qualities also found expression in the fact that all three of the companies that Grundy operated were his own private businesses. By capitalizing all his ventures from accumulated revenues, the TV format mogul ensured that he never had to disclose the financial details of his company operations to either shareholders or lending institutions. That all of these qualities entitle Reg Grundy to the name of TV format mogul will be seen concretely in the pages that follow. Here, though, it is worth adding some remarks about Reg Grundy's politics. This is noted because it is part of Tunstall's paradigm of the media mogul, and because it does not directly arise in the pages that follow.

Structure of the book

Having summarized the case for Grundy to be viewed as a TV format mogul, it remains to outline the chapters that follow. This chapter has spelt out the reasons for a study that is historical and sociological rather than personal and domestic. Nevertheless, Chapter 2 affords space to the early life, offering a prologue to the business career, and covering background, childhood, school, war service and breakthrough into commercial radio broadcasting. A long period of practical learning was required to provide Grundy with the necessary background to build a business empire. He came to know about the details and context of a trade in which he would spend the next five decades of his working life.

I have split this period of broadcasting apprenticeship into three chapters that cover Grundy's time in commercial radio and his early years in commercial television. The newcomer mastered three different cultural and commercial sets of skills: first, those related to broadcasting in general; then those specific to quiz and audience-participation programmes; and finally, the skills needed to embark on programme adaptation and remaking. Independent television programme production was always a risky matter for television entrepreneurs, but business expansion was the only form of insurance possible in the world of television programme packaging, where the independent operator invariably was dependent on the more powerful office of the broadcaster.


Excerpted from TV Format Mogul by Albert Moran. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Albert Moranis a senior lecturer in media studies at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of several books, including TV Formats Worldwide and New flows in Global TV, both also published by Intellect.

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