New show? For Brits, it's a rerun
Some two dozen new US shows are based on British hits, with more on the way.
Blimey, gobsmacked, or "suss somebody out" probably won't enter the American lexicon anytime soon, but other aspects of British culture - besides crumpets, the Beatles, and those adorable Mini Coopers - have jetted across the Atlantic and onto US tellies faster than a ride in the Concorde.
Ever since the ratings bonanza of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" US networks have salivated over anything British, and they continue to keep fishing across the pond, hoping to catch the next big thing.
Over the past three years, at least two dozen shows based on British hits either have been picked up by or are being shopped to US networks. And that's not counting BBC America, which airs original British programming on its cable channel. BBC America is currently in 35 million US homes.
More British imports are on the way:
• This month, NBC will start taping - with an American cast - its own version of "Coupling," a mix of "Friends" and "Sex and the City."
• CBS plans to put its own spin on "Manchild" (sort of a male version of "Sex and the City").
• Universal has bought the rights to the edgy, documentary-style comedy "The Office."
The reason is simple. Robbie Williams aside, "young British audiences and young American audiences tend to listen to similar music, like similar films, and like similar television," says Michael Davies, the producer responsible for bringing "Millionaire" to the United States in 1999.
He says all one has to do is walk around London to see evidence of the trend. "It's crawling with network executives and Hollywood agents meeting with every producer, director, and writer in Notting Hill," says Mr. Davies, who is now working on two more reality imports: "Perfect Match: New York," airing on ABC Family in June and "The Swap," airing on ABC this summer.
Reality shows such as "American Idol" and "Big Brother" are the most high-profile programs with British roots. But fashion, home decorating, and garden makeover shows from Britain have also sprouted up on cable TV. TLC's "What Not To Wear" and "Trading Spaces," have attracted a loyal and growing following. Some 6 million people tune into "Trading Spaces" every Saturday night, making it the network's first bona fide hit.
"The reason for all these makeover and reality shows," says Paul Lee, CEO of BBC America, "is that seven or eight years ago, traditional British comedies were getting stale. The world started saying, 'We're bored with cookie-cutter television. We want something that surprises us.' "
But the army of redecorators has grown so vast it's a wonder there's a dandelion or avocado-green kitchen left anywhere in the British Isles. And whether the new versions of Britcoms will translate to American audiences remains to be seen. There's plenty of precedent either way.
Two of the most popular sitcoms in the '70s originated in Britain. "Stepford and Son" and "Till Death Us Do Part" became "Sanford and Son" and "All in the Family." But for each success story, there is, to borrow another British phrase, at least one weakest link.
"Men Behaving Badly," a huge hit in Britain, came over to NBC in 1996 with disastrous results. In the 1980s, "Fawlty Towers," with John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, was remade in the states as the short-lived "Amanda's," with Beatrice Arthur.
And the differences between American and British humor (make that humour) can be as broad as the Atlantic. Roseanne Barr bought the rights to "Absolutely Fabulous" six years ago, but still hasn't found the right formula for the US. "Da Ali G Show" is a hit in Britain, but here on HBO, it airs at midnight, when most viewers are asleep.
"The British are more sarcastic and ironic," says Katharine Jones, an assistant professor of sociology at Philadelphia University and author of "Accent on Privilege: English Identities and Anglophilia in the US."
"There is also a sort of bawdiness - think 'Monty Python' - and puerile naughtiness."
Ms. Jones says that a number of the middle-class English people in her book maintain that Americans don't have a sense of humor. They must have missed "I'm a Celebrity - Get me Out of Here!" Come to think of it, that's a British import, too.
The Learning Channel's Michael Klein can relate to bawdiness. He spends most of his time deciding what would be appropriate content for American audiences.
"We just can't go as far as they do in terms of talking about body shape," Mr. Klein says. For example, "What Not to Wear" hosts Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine once told a subject that her poorly fitting bra made her look as if she had four breasts. Both versions of the makeover show offer a person a new wardrobe, provided he or she is willing to accept the acerbic advice of the hosts. (Perhaps the British accent can make even the most blunt comment sound soothing?)
But "The Osbournes" aside, accepted wisdom holds that American TV audiences don't want to see a cast made up entirely of foreigners.
"Often there will be one English person floating around," Jones says. "There's always one token actor." Think of Jane Leeves in "Frasier," Alex Kingston in "ER," and Anthony Stewart Head on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
For all the success of British shows in America, at least one producer finds it ironic that networks can't get enough of the Brits. It took Davies six years to get a network to accept a British reality show - "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," which debuted on ABC in 1998.
"I fell into the trap of believing my bosses, who felt that these shows had to be changed quite a lot," Davies says. "Ultimately, it was the first show that we made in a very similar way. Anytime a British show does cross the Atlantic, though, it is almost immediately Americanized - even if you try to keep it the same."