Net makes play for holiday import 'Robbie'

The British Invasion of U.S. airwaves continues, as the nation that brought us a slew of gonzo reality shows is looking to make its mark in that most sacred of American small-screen formats: the Christmas special.

BBC Worldwide has inked a multiyear pact with CBS to bring the award-winning “Robbie the Reindeer” franchise to the Eye net starting in December.

Two “Robbie” specs will be revoiced with an all-star lineup of U.S.-friendly voices, including Ben Stiller, Hugh Grant, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Jerry Stiller, Jim Belushi and Leah Remini. CBS Sports anchors Dan Dierdorf and Dick Enberg also are attached.

“Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire” and its 2002 sequel, “Legend of the Lost Tribe,” will make their Eye web bow Dec. 13 from 9-10 p.m. Their lead-in will be the granddaddy of Christmas specials: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“Robby” has had limited exposure to Stateside auds, with the former Fox Family Channel airing the U.K. version of the original 1999 spec, which features a Brit vocal cast. CBS execs leaped at the opportunity to bring the show to network TV and reshape it for American auds.

“We really loved the original story and animation,” said Jack Sussman, senior VP for specials at CBS. “But we felt if we could put together a cast of people recognizable to a U.S. audience, we’d stand a much greater chance of success. And the humor and style of the original remains.”

Sussman said the process of recruiting top-name talent to “Robbie” went amazingly well.

“This is my dream team cast,” he said. “All these people are home runs. I think this cast rivals that of a feature film, with Ben Stiller as your romantic comedy lead (Robbie), Britney Spears as the ultimate reindeer next door, Hugh Grant as the reindeer you love to hate and Leah Remini as the vixen.”

While “Rudolph” remains the crown jewel in the Eye’s roster of holiday specs — reliably supplying strong Nielsen numbers, especially among young adult demos — Sussman hopes “Robbie” can eventually join the pantheon of toon greats.

“Year in and year out, ‘Rudolph’ is a winner on our schedule,” he said. “Now, we think we have another great piece of animation that can be launched off of ‘Rudolph.’ They’re two wonderful stories that tell the Christmas story in two very different ways.”

“Robbie” is a young reindeer who, in the first spec, must compete against bad guy Blitzen (Grant) to win a slot on Santa’s sleigh team. In the new spec, “Legend of the Lost Tribe,” Robbie again faces off against Blitzen, aided by a tribe of Vikings.

“It’s a great story of good vs. evil and the underdog triumphing,” Sussman said.

The first “Robbie” spec debuted in December 1999 and earned a 55% aud share on BBC1, eventually snagging 19 international awards, including a British Academy of Film & Television Arts kudo for best entertainment program. Spec uses 3-D model animation designed by BBC’s Bristol-based animation unit. BBC Worldwide’s net profits from the sale of “Robbie” will be donated to Comic Relief U.K.

Helen Nabarro, Kevin Cahill, Richard Curtis and Colin Rose are exec producers of “Robbie,” with Jacqueline White the producer.

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