How do you make a success of the umpteenth talent show? Turn it into a competition between the members of the jury as well as between the contestants themselves; add the words “blind auditions” and turn the chairs around so that the jury cannot see the artists at first. That’s the formula for 'The Voice of Holland'. The result: 3.6 million Dutch viewers watched the final and the show has been sold to 42 countries throughout the world.
'The Voice' is not the only successful Dutch television format. The Netherlands is among the top television producing countries. It’s in third place after the UK and America. “Not bad for such a small country,” thinks Patty Geneste, format broker for the firm Absolutely Independent.
Ms Geneste travels all over the world selling television formats. Here are a handful of titles of Dutch programmes sold abroad: ‘All you need is love’, ‘Now or Never’, ‘Deal or No Deal’ and the megahit ‘Big Brother’. Ms Geneste says she knows why the Dutch are so successful at selling formats.
“It comes from our history. As a country, we have always been dependent on trade, and that trading instinct has been in our genes for years. You can see this in other sectors as well as television. We travel a lot, so we mix with other cultures which helps us anticipate. It makes us more open-minded and gives us more guts; we don’t tend to think anything is too strange. Compared to the rest of the world, we are really different.”
In addition to having a trading instinct and open attitude, innovative and creating thinking in television is stimulated in the Netherlands. In the last four years, programme makers have been given the opportunity to experiment with different formats in a programme called TVLab. A panel of viewers and Twitter followers give feedback about whether or not the formula is a hit.
Gerard Timmer is managing director of the video department at the Dutch Public Broadcasting organisation NPO, which produces TVLab. “I don’t think TVLab is the big driver behind the Netherlands’ position in third place. But symbolically I think TVLab shows that, as a creative TV country, the Netherlands ranks highly, is very inventive and adventurous.”
TVLab programmes also attract the attention of foreign broadcasters. A programme called ‘Truman’ from the previous series was sold to three countries recently. TVLab itself is popular in other countries. The experimental format has been televised in seven countries.
But not every programme is a success. Ms Geneste notices that foreign broadcasters are shocked by some Dutch programmes.
“Take 'The Coffin'. In that programme, the presenter drives around with a coffin on the roof of his car and talks to people about death. It was done really well, but the format has never been copied. There is a taboo surrounding this subject, people think it goes too far.”
The Netherlands also has a reputation as an 'early-adapter' a place where taboo-breaking programmes can be tested. Although some formats are too outrageous for the cultural norms in some countries, others make it easier to discuss certain topics.
The programme 'Coming Out', for instance, films how individuals tell family and friends that they are homosexual. Ms Geneste admits that it's "a sensitive subject" but says it seems to work.
"I thought it would be difficult to sell, but we’ve managed to sell it twice within a year: to Germany and Belgium. I think it's a remarkable format.”
The overwhelming success of 'The Voice' has put the Netherlands back on the map in the land of broadcasting. Although the programme is not in her case load, Ms Geneste thinks 'The Voice' is good for the trade in Dutch formats. She is currently trying to sell a game show called 'The Exit List'. She thinks it’s a format to be watched out for.
Last weekend, the winner of 'The Voice of Holland' 2011 was announced: first prize went to “the girl with the harp” Iris Kroes.