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Monday, 25 February 2008 07:32

The Brits Abroad

Forget formats, argues Laura Murphy, sell the shows themselves instead ...


Thinking of British programmes which have become successful in America brings a definite list to mind. Monty Python, The Benny Hill Show, and now The Office, are just some of the few classic comdeies which are well-known to have made it across the Atlantic. What is less known, however, is just how well the Brits are doing now, all over the world, with all types of shows.

While comedy is usually the British strong point, Anglophiles all over the world have been clamouring to watch the new British detective series or dramas. The best selling British show of 2004 according to Broadcast magazine, was Midsomer Murders, which was sold to 202 countries, followed by Ultimate Force, sold to 138 countries, and Prime Suspect, sold to 122 countries. The highest ranking comedy show is Little Britain, which winged its way to 24 countries, including Estonia, Japan and Iceland. Christina Willoughby, head of international sales and co-production for Channel 4 International, admits "There’s has been a drought of good British sitcoms for the past year".

Where we have been lacking in comedy, we have been excelling in formats. A recent report from the British Television Distributors Association (BTDA) shows that British programme makers’ format ideas accounted for 45 per cent of the international format trade in 2003, with the closest competitor, America, managing only a 20 percent share. Shows like Supernanny, Wife Swap and the 'Idol' phenomenon have been sold to many countries, including America, where Wife Swap is being made into many different versions by the ABC network, such as Boss Swap.

Matthew Frank, managing director of RDF International, said in a recent issue of Broadcast magazine: "ABC liked Wife Swap because it has real people in real homes. It feels very different to the glossy overproduced reality the US is used to". However is that the way that Americans really view this show and every other British show they get to see?

BBC America is biggest arm of BBC Worldwide, and reaches around 15 million US homes. On BBC America online, there are many people on the discussion boards who regularly vent their frustration at this. Mark Hinds from Jacksonville, Florida, believes that networks are turning "British gold into American tin". He believes, like many others, that if a show is good enough to attract the producers in the first place, then it should be good enough not to be changed. "Instead of wasting millions of dollars on something that will resemble something found underneath one’s Wellies than a quality show, spend it instead on underwriting the cost of the British original. The American network would have a quality show at a fraction of the cost".

British shows have achieved almost a cult status in America, which is partly due to BBC America. Thelma Purdie, 34, from Baltimore, loves Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By, shows which you would not associate with being popular in the US. Tom from Ridgecrest in California prefers British shows as they do not insult people’s intelligence like American shows can do. "They are better written and not as predictable as American fare".

Rodney, 21, originally from the UK, moved to the States in 1999. He does not like how their home-grown shows run for long periods of time, as he believes it limits the amount of new talent that gets through. In the six years he has been in America, he has seen remakes of numerous British formats. Changing Rooms was made into Trading Spaces and Holiday Showdown was made into Vacation Swap. "British shows feel more real. I relate to the characters, and the actors aren’t plastic. It’s been a while since anything decent has come from US TV".

Even people from Europe are fans of British shows. Jean Paul Contrex, from the Alpes-Maritimes region in France, is a huge fan of Peter Kay and Coronation Street, and as a regular viewer of BBC America, he gets to see what he considers the cream of British entertainment. "The shows here which are supposed to be real life are not very convincing, yet in British shows, there are not too many pretty people, so it seems realistic".

The list of shows that have been trialled and failed to make it as an American remake is long. Men Behaving Badly lasted just a year in America once remade, while in Britain it was on screens for six years. Cold Feet was also remade for America, and lasted less than a year while in the UK it lasted five years, and Coupling lasted only a month, while in the UK it was a massive success.

BBC America made a hit out of The Office, providing the Americans a show to remake for their own audience, after the British version won creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant two Golden Globes in 2004. The Office: An American Workplace began on NBC in March 2005 and initially, ratings were high, with 11.2 million people tuning in to the first episode.

However after a scheduling change, moving the show to a tough Tuesday night slot, ratings fell to just 5.9 million for the second episode, and there are doubts over the future of the show altogether.

There some exceptions to this trend of course. Til Death Do Us Part was on British screens from 1965 to1975, and its American remake, All In The Family, also fared well, on Stateside screens from 1971 to 1979. Steptoe and Son ran for twelve years in Britain, and its American version, Sanford and Son, ran for five years.

But people who have seen both versions still argue that the British originals are better. Reasons to explain the differences between the shows are varied. Censorship could be a major factor in the decision to remake shows. In Britain, programme makes could get away with a lot more than they could in America at the time, so when programmes are transferred to American screens, the censors may not be able to cut out what they deem as inappropriate without losing a great deal of the show and its meaning.

Another reason could be the accent difference. While not a problem for shows coming to Britain, many Americans find it hard to understand our varied Brit accents, and therefore cannot follow British shows. The problem stems from the fact that to some Americans, Brits sound like they are mumbling, talking too quickly and not clearly pronouncing consonants. The British also use a lot of slang, especially in shows like Only Fools and Horses, which can be like trying to decipher a completely foreign language.

As long as the Americans still want British shows on their screens, channels like BBC America will keep supplying them. However, that is not sufficient enough to raise the profile of British programme making. The UK needs their shows screened on national American networks before they can call themselves truly successful. In the past year, shows such as No Angels, Judge John Deed and Black Books have been bought by American networks, and Channel 4 series Teachers is already being remade - it is currently in production with NBC under the title Fillmore High.

We can only hope that the success of British formats around the world could spell a new kind of success for the UK in the future. Just think what incredible production values we could have on UK-produced series if co-production seeped back into the system regularly once more – the likes of the 1960s versions of The Avengers and The Saint, which benefited heavily from direct sales to the USA, could be possible once again.

Laura Murphy


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