Media: Watch out... the British are coming!

The success of UK quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has started an American gold rush. After years of importing US comedies, can we finally turn the tide?
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The Independent Culture
Catch any flight to New York or Los Angeles these days and the chances are that business class will be bustling with any number of British television executives visiting the US.

From ABC to AMC (American Movie Classics), US programme chiefs are tapping British talent like never before, and they want everything from high-class drama to documentaries about pornography.

Prompting this gold rush is the US success of ITV's Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the quiz show whose mid-summer pilot-run on ABC won its slot on almost every night and was the second highest Sunday broadcast behind the Oscars. "I'm having the hottest season yet," says agent Ben Silverman, who represents a range of UK shows, along with Millionaire, for talent agency William Morris.

Millionaire was brought to ABC by British-born Michael Davies, the network's executive vice-president responsible for alternative series and specials. He says the surprise success of the show has prompted more US networks to look to the UK.

"It seems that just about everyone is clamouring for British shows right now," says Davies, who has had network chairmen calling to congratulate him on Millionaire's ratings.

Most of the big US networks kicked off the 1999/2000 season last week. It is a nail-biting time for one ITV company, Granada which has sold the format of the relationship drama Cold Feet to NBC. The show started in a Friday slot last week. Cold Feet is being produced by Kerry Ehrin, a former writer on Moonlighting. The pilot had languished until Ehrin brought the script closer to the UK original.

Granada has also interested the American networks in a programme which seems as British as steak-and-kidney pudding: The Royle Family. Sony's Columbia Tristar is keen to make the show for an American market. Its stars and writers, Caroline Aherne and Henry Normal, are currently negotiating just how much control they should have over the US version before the final deal is signed with Sony America, which is run, incidentally, by Welshman Howard Stringer. Aherne, better known to UK viewers as Mrs Merton, is already being sold as a star in California in her own right and is also represented by Ben Silverman.

Even if Cold Feet is, ultimately, a flop, it is a tremendous achievement for it to have gone so far. Of the more than 100 show ideas which reach development, only 20 or so get to the pilot stage and perhaps seven reach the schedule. NBC programming president Garth Ancier admits he has a tough job rejecting almost everyone he talks to. "It's a no-win situation," he says.

As the TV critics predict the hits of the new season, the development cycle for next year is getting into full swing and British ideas are high on the agenda there too. Scott Sassa, president of West Coast operations is on the look out for original ways of interpreting what are essentially a limited number of subjects on the networks; docs and cops, lawyers and lovers. He says: "It is all about putting new wine in an old bottle. ER is a medical show, we want to take those ideas make them exciting and different and turn them on their side."

Los Angeles-based, Scott Siegler is head of Granada's US operations and confirms that Ancier's team has signed up to develop Yorkshire Television's show, See You Friday. The network has also asked the show's writer, Mike Bullen, to come up with something original for the US.

"It is great to have a British show to look at," says Ancier who has his eye on another project from across the pond. "There is another British show being pitched. It's like Friends... This Life," he says proudly remembering its name.

Sassa spent time in the UK as a senior executive at Turner Broadcasting and is happy to admit that he is confused by the British interest in topics such as gardening. "When I was at Turner, I used to travel a lot. I would sit in the Lanesborough Hotel in London and try to figure out what it was all about."

Nevertheless, Sassa is considering whether the UK trend for docu-drama, such as Driving School, might work in America. He says there will definitely be room for more documentary material but he isn't sure what form it will take yet. Sassa works closely with Garth Ancier who, until his move to NBC this summer, was most recently programme chief at the youthful WB network. WB, which airs such shows as Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is understood to be taking a close interest in Channel 4 projects such as A Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.

On ABC there is a commitment to recommission Whose Line is it Anyway? which first aired in the US last summer. That show comes from UK outfit Hat Trick Productions, which scored a $3m development deal with Warner Bros in July and is due to open a Los Angeles office on the back of the two-year agreement. Already on the development slate is an American version of Channel 4's satirical panel game Have I Got News For You. And even Channel 4 is considering opening up shop in Los Angeles on the strength of some of the deals which it has in the works.

The growing interest in British material is fuelled purely by a desire to be different says Karey Burke, the executive vice president for prime- time series on NBC. She denies that lower costs play a factor in turning attention toward UK material.

But, of course, money is a factor for commissioners who can look at a UK show, see a tape and know how it rated. NBC's programme budget is still an eye-popping $1bn, according to Sassa, but the network has moved away from a model that once saw the vast majority of shows pulled off the air each season. Now they want to use their promotional budget, which tops $100m, much more wisely.

Some UK independents see the UK push into the US as an overhyped story. World of Wonder's Fenton Bailey, head of the production company responsible for Channel 4's Adam and Joe show, has been operating a truly international company ranging between Los Angeles and Brixton for years. Bailey is one of a handful of British executives who genuinely splits his time between the two countries. He says: "There is a very small overlap between British TV and American TV. And people continually go broke underestimating that divide."

Indeed, few of the pilot shows actually turn into commissions and scripts are often acquired simply to prevent rivals from picking them up. The US translation of Granada's Holding the Baby only stayed on the Fox network for a few weeks before being dumped. "The two countries are like Venus and Mars," concludes Bailey. "Not everyone knows what will cross over."