Formats flying first class

'Dancing' among U.K. reality series finding new life in States

LONDON — It has been a hot summer for British TV producers in the U.S.

At one point in June, veteran U.K. producer Granada carved up a fifth of the weekday primetime schedules on Fox and NBC. Meanwhile, ABC was riding high thanks to “Dancing With the Stars,” a remake of BBC1 hit, “Strictly Come Dancing.”

It’s taken the Brits a very long time to achieve this level of success across the Atlantic.

“Everyone knows that TV is cyclical, but the economics suggest that most of the shows successfully crossing the Atlantic in the months ahead are likely to be non-scripted,” says BBC Worldwide deputy CEO Mike Phillips, who helped persuade ABC to take what morphed into “Dancing With the Stars.”

“Comedy and drama are very risky. They’re expensive to get off the ground and usually fail. The idea of a reality show produced at a sensible price — that can deliver the same kind of numbers — is very attractive to the networks.”

Not that Brits haven’t scored the occasional breakthrough with scripted shows. Cult sitcom “The Office” has just begun its second run in the U.S. on NBC despite so-so ratings, while BBC crime thriller “Hustle” has been acquired by cabler American Movie Classics.

BBC Worldwide is talking to one of the U.S. studios concerning a deal to develop co-funded comedy and drama. However, the pubcaster’s focus remains on reality shows or pure entertainment vehicles that echo fare such as “Fire Me … Please” or “Dancing With the Stars.”

“We’re pitching two new shows — both non-scripted and in the factual entertainment genre — to the Americans, which we hope to be involved in producing,” says Phillips, who declined to furnish more details for fear of alerting rivals.

He needs no reminding that the most successful British combo of late has been competitor Granada America, headed by veteran U.K. entertainment exec and producer Paul Jackson, a former BBC high flyer.

On the back of shows like “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” “Nanny 911” and “Hell’s Kitchen” Granada, operating from offices in Los Angeles and Gotham, has seen revenue from U.S. productions triple in the past 12 months.

“We’re, by far, the biggest European supplier to American networks,” Phillips says. “By the middle of this year, we’d made about 250 hours, excluding the TV movies, which adds another 26 hours or so.”

Jackson, however, is realistic and knows that the present bubble will eventually burst.

In reality, the Americans are catching up, he says, and the success of shows such as Fremantle’s “American Idol” notwithstanding, he anticipates the trend for music-based shows being relatively short-lived.

“They’ll be around for maybe another year or so, but they’re a hard sell as we found with ‘An Audience With …’ and ‘Stars in Their Eyes,’ ” Jackson says.

In common with other British execs he predicts that fare featuring a strong feel-good factor (“Dancing With the Stars”) stands a better chance of opening doors at broadcasters and cable networks than old-style reality skeins.

Overall, he reckons the U.S. market is less easy to read than it was last year.

“Nine months ago I said that inspirational shows will kick in and that happened,” says Jackson. “Sitting here now, I can’t see anything coming along that is as identifiable as that.”

“It’s going to be quite a long time before we see another big reality show that relies on humiliating the contestants, but formats that celebrate what people do, like ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ or ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ will continue to be popular. Shows that improve the quality of people’s lives — so-called intervention shows — are also likely to be around for a while.

Independent distributor Sally Miles, managing director of ID, who’s made reality shows for U.S. cable webs Bravo and A&E, expects to see factual entertainment shows taking a more relaxed approach to their subjects.

She says: “I think we’re going to see far less manipulation of the participants in these shows and a move towards real people and real lives. It’s important these shows feel fresh and original.”

BBC Worldwide’s head of formats, Colin Jarvis, who scored with “Fire Me … Please” on CBS this summer, offers two pieces of advice for competitors keen to ramp up their U.S. presence: Be quick off the mark and don’t rule out anything.

“You’ve got to be fast or someone else will beat you to it,” he warns. “The great thing about the market in the States is that it is so big that anything is possible.”

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