John de Mol doesn't fit the image of a media mogul. He works out of a pristine white office building in the quiet Dutch city of Hilversum. He dresses in sober business suits. And even as his fame grows, de Mol remains uncomfortable giving interviews. "John hates the limelight," says Thomas Notermans, a close adviser.
But the 45-year-old Dutchman, founder and chairman of the Continent's largest TV production company, Endemol Entertainment Holding, is proving that a European can challenge America's giant studios. Over the past two decades, Endemol has opened subsidiaries in 15 countries, taking individual programs and adapting them to suit Europe's varied national tastes.
Now de Mol is crossing the Atlantic with his most popular show. Big Brother sets up a group of strangers to live together and films their ensuing conflicts. The show will premiere on July 6 in the U.S. on CBS--one of the first times a European TV program has been picked up by an American broadcaster. "Big Brother comes very close to the audience because what happens there is real. If somebody laughs, he or she is really happy and if somebody cries, the tears are real," says de Mol.
Spain's Telefonica agreed to pay $5.4 billion to buy his company in March and will likely name de Mol top creative executive for its media and Internet properties. He'll stay behind the scenes. "The front of the stage is for other people," he says. "I like to eat a hamburger at McDonald's without being pointed at." Now this quiet man will bring a little more European flavor to American television.