Mad rush to the US schedules

British TV companies are clamouring for a piece of the action on the three big networks

AS Americans in vast numbers turned on their television sets last week to watch the final episode of Seinfeld, the process of finding the hit comedy series' successor was already well under way. This weekend television executives are putting the finishing touches to the new network schedules, which will be announced later in the week.

Among the hopeful studio executives, agents, advertisers and Hollywood talent crowding into New York's best hotels to await the announcements are a growing number of British TV companies, including Granada Television, Pearson Television and Hat Trick Productions, which are all trying to strike it rich in the world's most lucrative television market.

The first rumours are already circulating about which of the 100 or so pilots ordered will clinch the much-vaunted series spots in the schedules. About one in every four of the pilot episodes for new series will have an attempt at being the next Seinfeld.

The stakes are huge. The six networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, United Paramount Network and the WB (Warner Brothers) Network - are selling their schedules to American advertisers, who are expected to commit about $5bn (pounds 3.1bn) in "upfront" advertising or pre-bought slots for the new schedule that starts in September.

While the cost of getting into US television is expensive, the rewards for a hit series are astronomical and continue to attract more and more producers.

"If you have a series that is successful in the US, it's the faucet that never stops dripping," explained Jimmy Mulville, joint managing director of Hat Trick Productions.

A hit can command incredible fees. NBC, for example, had to pay $13m in order to show each episode of ER, which was $11m more expensive than the original $2m it had paid at the beginning. Then there is the real gold mine of US television - the syndication market, where repeats of a show are sold to about 250 independent television stations around the country and can run for years and years. Seinfeld, which is now being sold for its second round of repeats, is expected to make more than $1.5bn in syndication by the end of that round in the year 2003.

Scott Siegler, president of Granada Entertainment, said: "The revenue that comes out of syndication in this country for individual shows are in billions of dollars. There is a risk-reward ratio and the more risk, the greater the rewards."

Granada Television, which had its first US series Cracker on air last year before it was cancelled by ABC, has three series which could be snapped up. All of them are re-makes of British series - Cold Feet for NBC, and Blind Men and Holding The Baby for the Fox Network.

Pearson Television International has a drama series Boston Grace from film director Martha Coolidge with the United Paramount Network. Meanwhile, Simon Nye, creator of Men Behaving Badly, has Animals, a Pearson series, in re-write for the NBC Network as a mid-season series (which means it would be on the air around December when a second round of series are recruited to replace failing shows). Animals will focus on a vet who hates animals but continues to practise because he finds it is a good way to meet women.

Hat Trick Productions, which struck a development deal with the ABC Network last year, will produce six episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, featuring the comedian Drew Carey, for ABC this summer. A bigger potential deal is HatTrick's pilot for a US version of Game On to be called Rock Scissors Paper, under consideration by Fox. Game On has been re-written for the US by Bill and Sheri Steinkiller, the husband-and-wife writing team behind Cheers.

This recent influx of British talent and ideas has nothing to do with a demand from US audiences for British products. Most British shows which make an impact in the US, such as Absolutely Fabulous or costume dramas such as Pride and Prejudice, play on cable channels where their ratings are a fraction of those for a network hit series.

It seems the drawing on British ideas and writers is more a symptom of the US entertainment business's search for the next big thing. Juliet Blake, vice-president of programming at Pearson All American, said: "I always say that American characters are aspirational and British characters are perspirational, and I think that's true. With the success of films like The Full Monty, which showed real people, there is a desire among US executives to tap into that British sensibility."

Strategically for British TV companies like Granada and Hat Trick, the US offers a chance to exploit many of the UK's properties in a new and lucrative market. Similarly for Pearson, which in addition to developing network shows has also acquired US companies such as Baywatch producer All American, developing series for US networks represents a new revenue stream.

Granada, Pearson and Hat Trick have worked to produce their own shows rather than just sell the shows' formats, which is how many British shows like Stepford and Son have made it to US network television in the past. This season John Cleese has sold the re-make rights of Fawlty Towers, which will feature the comedian John Larroquette, to Universal TV.

Granada, however, has hit an obstacle in this strategy. Carsey Werner, producers of hits like Roseanne and The Cosby Show, had tried to buy the rights to Granada's British series Puny Humans but Granada refused.

Carsey Werner has since developed a series called Earth Scum which is very close to the Puny Humans' storyline for the ABC Network. While Granada is hoping to avoid legal action, not least because of the difficulties involved in a case over the copyright on ideas, the two comp- anies are trying to negotiate a co-production credit. But neither would speak officially about the dispute.

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