Television: Creative Brits pass the US screen test

Jane Root is the latest TV chief called across the water to breathe new life into American programming, writes Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online

A few years ago, it would have seemed downright eccentric for a television executive to leave the resolutely non-commercial world of BBC2 for a job in the big, bad US. Not any more.

When Jane Root crosses the Atlantic next month to take up her new post as general manager of the Discovery Channel family of cable stations, she won't be expected to infuse the place with an old-fashioned spirit of public-sector broadcasting, but the exact opposite. She has been hired to add "sizzle", just as she did as BBC2's controller over the past five years with game shows (The Weakest Link), makeover shows (What Not To Wear) and offbeat comedies (The Office).

And she's not alone. British TV executives are all the rage in the US, propelled into key positions not because of their command of Shakespeare adaptations and twee sitcoms, but because they understand how to find fresh ways to entertain the jaded masses. Whether through reality television, drama or comedy, the trick is to turn off-the-wall premises into mainstream hits. And Brits, it seems, are very good at it - good enough for a lot of their material to have been imported into the States in one form or another and had its success replicated.

"Television in America has suffered of late from being very format-driven, filled with 'high-concept' ideas," said Michael Jackson, the former head of Channel 4, who moved here in 2001 and currently runs the television arm of Universal Studios. "Often it is the things that seem weirdest on first sight that become the most successful."

And that, in practice, often means taking on a British sort of programming sensibility. Mr Jackson's own achievements include a gloriously wacky hit detective series on the US cable channel Monk, with a near- helpless, obsessive-compulsive protagonist played by the character actor Tony Shalhoub.

Monk, though, is decidedly highbrow, compared with the achievements of the rest of the British invasion. Take Michael Davies, UK producer of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, who sold that show to ABC and is now pitching other ideas there. Or Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor on both sides of the Atlantic, now responsible for The Apprentice, a dog-eat-dog corporate elimination series featuring Donald Trump. (A Variety columnist recently called the colossally successful Burnett "the ego that walks like a man").

Much of this reality-fuelled British crowd - which includes Duncan Gray, former controller for entertainment at Granada, now vice-president of alternative series at ABC - was brought to the US by Ben Silverman, a talented former William Morris agent. Silverman cherry-picked the most alluring British programmes - Millionaire, Big Brother, Weakest Link, Queer as Folk, Coupling - and brokered deals to bring them to the States in Americanised versions.

Now Silverman has his own production company under the Universal umbrella, where he is overseen by Jackson. The Britpack is a close-knit group, and is likely to continue being so with the addition of Root, whose background in subverting expectations at BBC2 and bringing the sensibility of independent TV production into the mainstream will serve her well.

On the surface, the Discovery Channel looks closer to public broadcasting than to Big Brother, with a long-standing emphasis on nature programmes, historical documentaries and scientific explorations. It has a thriving business relationship with the BBC, including co-ownership of BBC America.

But Discovery's president, Billy Campbell, is anxious to give the place a thorough going-over. Already one cable station in the stable, The Learning Channel, has benefited from the runaway success of a makeover show called Trading Spaces, a Stateside version of Britain's Changing Rooms. Campbell has encouraged motor-fetish shows such as Monster Garage; his Travel Channel, meanwhile, has gained new audiences by broadcasting the World Poker Series from Las Vegas.

It often seems, from this side of the Atlantic, that British television has dived downmarket, a result of becoming much more commercial-minded. Paradoxically, US television has become more diverse and vibrant. The attraction of the Brits to US television companies is not so much that they know how to be lurid, but rather that they understand how to be innovative, unstuffy and creative all at the same time.

It is that delicate balancing act that is so sought after. "The talent pool for TV executives has recently become smaller. You hear a lot of moaning that there are not enough good people to fill the top positions. That's why so many British executives have been brought in," said Joe Adalian, TV editor at Variety.

"The networks and cable have been looking to broaden out and find different voices, and the British have the format everyone is looking for. The gap between the countries has shrunk."

Not everyone's experience has been so happy. While Burnett is going from strength to strength (ventures include a boxing reality show, The Contender, backed by Sylvester Stallone), Michael Jackson has become entangled in the tawdry world of high-stakes media conglomerate takeovers.

His original job, with Barry Diller's USA Entertainment, was folded into Universal after Diller and Universal's embattled French owners, Vivendi, rejigged their respective interests in each other. Now, with Universal about to merge with NBC, there is a serious danger that he will find himself pushed off his perch altogether.

No wonder he is being mentioned as a candidate for BBC director general - a subject on which he declined to comment. He did, however, remark on the movement of British executives to the US: "It would be interesting to see it go the other way around." Not, of course, that he was talking about himself.