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BBC America feeds frenzy for formats

'Coupling,' 'The Office' among skeins to cross the pond

Call it BBC America: Attack of the Clones.

Cable and network execs are hot to cop the digital channel’s current stable of U.K. skeins. And the cabler, available in 37 million U.S. homes, doesn’t mind all the borrowing. In fact, it couldn’t be more thrilled.

The first BBC America skein to hit the Big Four is the Brit sex comedy “Coupling,” winner of the Peacock’s plum primetime Thursday slot between “Will & Grace” and “ER.”

The NBC take is a virtual carbon copy of the BBC’s version — which kicks off its third season on BBC America in August — sans, of course, the Blighty cast and locale.

For the most part, Americanized means direct translations rather than inspired-bys — roughly half the scripts for the first season of NBC’s “Coupling” line up note for note with their U.K. originals.

Cabler further plans to capitalize on NBC’s reach by skedding its British segs of “Coupling” at 10 p.m., right after the Peacock’s 9:30 p.m. run.

“It’s fantastic,” BBC America COO Paul Lee says. “Suddenly this channel that was hardly noticed outside hardcore digital watchers is becoming one of the most influential channels on American television.”

A co-venture between the BBC and Discovery Networks, BBC America fills 80% of its sked with programming new to U.S. auds, having cherry-picked the best from the BBC and other suppliers like Britain’s Channel Four and Euro-producer Endemol.

Importing hits from across the pond is nothing new — see “American Idol,” “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” “Dog Eat Dog” and “Queer As Folk” — but the upcoming batch will be airing at the same time as their BBC America counterparts instead of years down the road.

Upcoming projects copped from the 5-year-old Brit cable net’s primetime sked:

  • Docu-style laffer “The Office,” which is being developed by Universal with plans to be sold to one of the broadcast nets. Skein is already a darling of U.S. crix, who actually nominated it for best comedy at this year’s TV Critics Assn. Awards.

  • CBS is prepping an American-ized version of “Manchild,” the male answer to “Sex and the City.”

  • BBC America’s sister net TLC currently airs versions of makeover fare including “Faking It,” “Ground Force” and “What Not to Wear.” And TLC’s monster hit “Trading Spaces” is a remake of “Changing Rooms,” which airs repeatedly on BBC America.

Whether the import strategy will work for the U.S. nets is an open question. If summer has proven anything, it’s that spinoff skeins of successful shows — “Cupid,” “For Love or Money” and its dating genre ilk — don’t necessarily add up to winning numbers.

But for BBC America, Lee says idea-sharing is a win-win and can only boost the cabler’s brand. That’s because the relatively small cabler is about to reap a windfall of free publicity.

“Every article that’s written about ‘Coupling’ says ‘based on the BBC America show.’ ” he says. “The originals are on our channel.”

The link to skeins’ British originators may be obvious to press-savvy TV auds, and the net is confident that the connection will become apparent should the American versions take off.

“How many things about ‘Friends’ do we not know?” he says.

Cable net’s research shows awareness of the association between shows and their U.K. parents is at 67% (up from 37% three years ago).

“Coupling” exec producer Ben Silverman says giving credit where it’s due only ups the broadcast nets’ cachet.

“We’re positioning it as based on a British show,” Silverman says. “Just based on the fact that shows emanating from Europe like “Survivor” have been so successful. They’ve got a good track record.”

And what if NBC’s “Coupling should tank?

“We know the show is much loved on BBC America,” Lee says. “It isn’t as if our ratings would go down if the American version wasn’t successful. There’s no downside.”

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