October 1, 1995

Bad Taste, with a Twist

IDA member Peter Stuart is one of the few American nonfiction producers to have made a successful career in Europe. This article about Stuart was first published in the July 31, 1995, Issue of Forbes.

London's Sun tabloid calls it "the rudest telly show ever," but Eurotrash is one of the highest-rated shows on Channel Four In Britain, watched every Friday night at 11 p.m. by some 3 million Brits. Eurotrash is aptly named. Its French hosts, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Antoine De Caunes, treat viewers to such items as a Berlin cleaning agency that for $50 an hour will have naked men clean your house, a sadomasochistic restaurant that serves burned pig testi­cles in maple syrup, and Swedish TV's on-air enema competition.

Bad taste? A Tory MP recently said the producer deserved to have his "ears boxed." But the MP was missing the point: Eurotrash makes fascinating TV because it exposes Europe's fetid cul­ture flourishing amid Europe's cultural pretensions.

It took an American to do it.

Eurotrash is produced by Peter Stuart, a 35-year-old New York-born, Los Angeles-bred TV talent. Stuart works for London-based $5.2 million (rev­enues) Rapido TV, 50 percent owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Communications Ltd., 50 percent owned by Stuart and three partners. "The lifeblood of TV is ideas," says Channel Four executive David Stevenson, and Stuart has them. "Rapido's not big in terms of turnover, but they've done a lot to shape TV culture here."

Amusingly, it was the French culture czars with their dislike of things American who gave Stuart his big break. The czars restricted the amount of U.S. TV that could appear on French screens, and much of the French stuff was boring. Tim Newman—French despite his name—was a Paris TV executive who was looking for live fare.

Stuart had directed some 50 segments of a show produced by his father, the TV producer Mel Stuart. Among other things, the younger Stuart did pieces on the world's longest hot dog and goldfish cancer surgery.  In 1985 the 25-year-old Stuart followed his wife to France when she was transferred to the Paris bureau of Women's Wear Daily. That's when he met Newman. "You're an American," exclaimed the manic Newman. "You must have ideas for television shows."

Stuart (right) with Federico Fellini, the subject of one of Stuart's documentaries.

Stuart pitched his ideas to Newman, sitting in a garage while Newman's car was being repaired. "I liked his approach to TV," says Newman. "French TV is slow, egocentric, boring. Americans have rhythm."

Newman backed Stuart's idea for a TV show modeled on Rolling Stone magazine. They called it Rapido and featured the irreverent, fast-talking Antoine De Caunes introducing well-produced segments on rock cul­ture. Stuart directed and wrote scripts in English, which were then translated.

France changed Stuart's idea of what television ought to be. "In America, the standard approach to celebrities is Entertainment Tonight," says Stuart. "Flaccid, smiling, big-hair approach. All celebrities are treated equally. In France, however, I met journalists who had opinions and weren't afraid to say them on the air." A decade ago Stuart's French reporters were telling Mick Jagger to hang up his tight trousers.  The French never pretended to be balanced, and Stuart felt liberated. "It was a revelation," he says.

Rapido ran for six years and was sold in 14 countries—even in Japan. Stuart had made French TV hip. The show was sold to the BBC in 1989. With the help of a $300,000 credit line provided by Richard Branson, Stuart left Paris for London, where he started a production company and called it Rapido TV Ltd. Without Stuart's drive and American-style ideas, the French production company collapsed.

Along with Eurotrash, Rapido's controversial programs are Baadass TV, a black culture magazine hosted by controversial U.S. rapper Ice-T; The Penis Unsheathed (the penis as portrayed in art); and Diana Unclothed (the sexual attractions of Princess Diana). The latter two are platforms for American radical Camille Paglia to spew forth her refreshingly politically incorrect theories on feminism.

Stuart knows most of his stuff is too raunchy for the relatively puritanical United States, but he does have hopes that a talk show program about sexual relationships called Love in the Afternoon will have syndication potential here. He also turns out classy, heavyweight documentaries, such as a profile of Federico Fellini shortly before the director died called Fellini Fiddles, Rome Burns.

None of this has yet made him rich. But you can count on this: Peter Stuart is not going to be satisfied churning out voyeuristic programs for leering Brits and Frenchmen. He's a real talent and bursting with ambition, always keeping in mind his dad's advice. Mel Stuart told his son: "Never let others take credit for your work."

 

Reprinted by permission of Forbes, Inc.

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