Pitching TV across the pond

Ben Silverman took shows such as 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?', 'The Weakest Link' and 'The Office' and made them work in the USA. But he's worried that British producers could be losing their creative edge
Click to follow
The Independent Online

To my mind, the UK is the most creative country in the world, on a per-capita basis. Take a look at the amount of British programming selling overseas; the UK television export market is far greater than the import market. The amount of capital pouring into British television from overseas sales is certainly a cause for celebration. However I believe it could also have a negative effect on creativity, particularly amongst indies. Already I detect a small amount of self-satisfaction in the UK industry: "We've got it cracked." On the contrary: I believe the emerging British independent sector still has much to learn about how to sell its ideas in the US.

The fact that British television sells so well all over the world is at least partly attributable to the way the industry is organised, and particularly to the institutional nature of public broadcasting in the UK. The BBC acts as a huge graduate-school where 40,000 people learn. Much of its star-talent then migrates to the independent sector; perhaps 50 per cent of those now running independent production companies in the UK at some point worked within the BBC.

Today the big independents are stronger than ever as a result of favourable legislation, and riding high through the creative affirmation that they have gained from successes like Supernanny, Wife Swap and the fine drama and comedy that they have produced. But is this as healthy as it might appear? Twenty years ago, British television was notorious for being an "old boys' club", largely composed of Oxbridge graduates. We are in danger of seeing a new version of that narrow exclusivity: an arrogance that does not necessarily further creative thinking. There is a real danger that the independent sector could end up becoming stale and derivative. In the quest to become more corporately aggressive, it will become less creatively aggressive.

Already you can see examples of how derivative UK television is becoming. It seems to have forgotten the lesson that being first is usually being best. So, there has been a chorus of programmes about living on an island, or being a nanny for life-issues, or a binge in the weight-loss genre; and after Wife Swap, an orgy of swap shows. But only one talent show, only one weight-loss series, and only one swap programme really works. After Who Wants To Be A Millionaire debuted, there were 100 game-show knock-offs, but only Millionaire is left standing now.

Most of the time, what interests me and the big networks will be the format and style, adapted for an American audience. Americans want to watch Americans, just as Brits want to watch Brits and the French want to watch French people. This is most especially true in reality television shows.

Only rarely can British stars make the crossover to the US market. Simon Cowell and Anne Robinson managed it because they were cast in the high villain role that the English have been playing in motion pictures.

British drama has a fine tradition of gritty realism, which also manages to be funny at the same time. One of the series I would dearly love to take to the US is Paul Abbott's Shameless: dynamic, dangerous, magical television. It would be hard to pitch it initially to an American network, but with a strong American writer, adapted to Pittsburgh or Detroit or Boston, it could work brilliantly.

The only way to sell in the US is to accept these basic ground-rules. British producers and production companies cannot expect to hang on to creative control, unless they have a really strong grasp of what American audiences want to see.

Without a doubt, personal passion is always going to be the source of the best ideas. Jamie Oliver opened a restaurant staffed by disadvantaged young people - the beginning of a whole new genre where cookery meets reality. Then he realised how bad school dinners had become, and created not only the best British show of the year, but another genre: crusader television.

I'd like to think School Dinners, or something like it, could be a hit in the US. I'm still eager to tap into the creative laboratory of UK television. I learnt a massive amount in the five years I lived and worked here; my eyes were opened to some of the mistakes of the US TV industry. It would be a pity if the British independent sector exchanged creative success for corporate gain.

Taken from the UKTV book 'The Next Big Thing', published today by Premium (£9.99)