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'The Office' hits top spot in US download charts

The American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell as the boss from hell, is topping the iTunes television download chart. Episodes of the series based on the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant sitcom occupied half of its top 20 chart over Christmas.

The US network NBC produces the show, which is gaining cult status, and Carell has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role of Michael Scott - the US version of David Brent.

The opening episode of the remake attracted 11.2 million viewers, despite criticism before the series launch that the low-key humour would fail with audiences across the Atlantic.

After its success, NBC made 12 episodes of The Office available online last month, as the popularity of downloading television programmes was recognised by broadcasters.

The US is leading the way in the television download market, and there are industry rumours that Britain will follow its lead this month. At present UK viewers who want to download American programmes through the iTunes website, which is run by Apple, can do so only if they hold a US credit card. Short films by the studio Pixar, film trailers and music videos can be downloaded in the UK and watched on a computer or the latest iPod.

NBC's success with The Office has almost wiped out the early advantage gained by the rival network ABC, which was the first broadcaster to sign up. NBC has said it will extend the amount and range of programming available on iTunes over the year, although it already offers three times as many shows on the website as ABC.

US broadcasters are now racing to sign up to the television download service, launched last year. Frederick Huntsberry, NBC's universal head of television distribution, told Variety: "In the next 12 months our intention is to heavily increase the content you see there today." Garth Ancier, the head of the Warner Brothers network, has said he expects to make a deal with iTunes sooner rather than later. HBO executives have also expressed interest.

British television networks are unlikely to be able to ignore the success of the television download service, which is growing in popularity as rapidly as the iTunes music service did when it was launched.