Rob Brown column
As evidenced by the metamorphosis of Fitz, British programmers must be prepared to rewrite their radical scripts for conservative American viewers
Monday 25 August 1997
Over the weekend some of these starry-eyed dreams sought to hammer the fuzzy fantasies into hard-nosed business plans by attending a special workshop at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. The stated purpose of the session was to pose the question: what is the realistic potential for Brits in the US TV market place, a market place that has proved largely impenetrable to all foreign programme makers up to now? In other words, is it worth the air fare?
The session was packed, suggesting that many are encouraged by this breakthrough and by the fact that two of Britain's foremost independent production companies Hat Trick (producer of Have I Got News For You, Drop The Dead Donkey and Father Ted) and Planet 24 (producer of The Word and The Big Breakfast) have also recently struck major ground-breaking deals with US networks. The latter outfit, founded by Bob Geldof, seems to have struck gold with a full commission for a nationally syndicated show.
In addition, the BBC is in the process of forming an important alliance with Discovery Communications Inc, which will enable the corporation to mount its most serious assault on America.
The fact that the Beeb, several big ITV companies and a number of leading indies are all eagerly seeking to break out of the confines of the British TV market place and become serious global players marks a dramatic shift in outlook among UK broadcasters.
Sir Huw Wheldon used to argue that there was a great distinction between British and American television. US TV, he claimed, was remarkable in many ways: highly skilled, popular, a global commodity whose writers had no higher ambition than to entertain. The British could make highly professional and popular television, but, according to Wheldon, we could never turn it into a global commodity because we wanted our writers to challenge viewers as well as entertain them.
Some would like to preserve that great distinction. In a forthcoming book Peter Ansorge, Channel 4's outgoing head of drama, will lament the fact that an increasing number of British directors and writers have developed a love affair with LA and would much rather set their dramas in the glitzy entertainment capital of America than in gritty UK locations like Liverpool. "We have fallen in love with satellite, cable, video and computers; increasingly out of love with the notion that drama should challenge as well as entertain," argues Ansorge.
Isn't it possible to do both? It would be nice to think so, but experience suggests that ratings-obsessed network schedulers rarely dare to challenge their audiences. As evidenced by the metamorphosis of Fitz and the drastic reformulating of a string of British sitcoms for American consumption, British programmers must generally be prepared to completely rewrite their radical scripts and tone down any risque material for the highly conservative American viewers.
A few years ago Channel 4 ran up against religious fundamentalism when it sought to export an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (located in America's gay capital San Francisco) to the US.
"Never forget the Bible Belt!" was one stern piece of advice which the Edinburgh delegates received at the weekend from Bruce Johansen, chairman of the trade body Natpe, when he served up a generally jovial beginners' guide to the US broadcasting landscape.
Johansen appeared determined to present his homeland as a land of unlimited opportunity - probably to lure some more British programme makers over to New Orleans this coming January for his organisation's next annual convention - but, if he were totally honest, he would also have to acknowledge that his compatriots remain among the most parochial people on this planet. For this reason US TV screens will continue to be almost completely dominated by US domestic production. That is essentially what Fitz is - a US domestic production. The series will be made by Granada Entertainment USA, a new Stateside subsidiary of the ITV station. Presumably some of the profits will be ploughed back into the Manchester-based production company, but it is hard to see what other conceivable spin-offs there might be for the British economy from British companies starting to make American shows in America. At least when America's public broadcasting system PBS or the A&E (Arts and Entertainment) cable channel transmit British costume dramas such as Pride and Prejudice, they contribute to the British heritage industry, which ultimately translates into more tourism dollars from that small segment of the American population which is outward-looking.
Strange as it might seem, the crazy antics of Monty Python's Flying Circus also contributed to UK PLC when it was among public television's most highly rated programmes. The Dead Parrot sketches have probably done more to attract irreverent young Americans to these shores than any number of BTA brochures.
`From Liverpool to Los Angeles' by Peter Ansorge will be published on 22 September by Faber & Faber, price pounds 8.99.
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