Nets uncertain as to how overseas hits will play

Amid hand-wringing about U.S. border security and the moribund dollar, encouraging more imports risks sounding unpatriotic or incurring the blustery wrath of CNN’s loony Lou Dobbs.

What has traditionally been a one-way street, however — with America exporting finished TV programs to the world — is gradually achieving a new polarity. After all, reality TV formats fly back and forth across borders, even if projects heralded as hits abroad (most recently filed under “Wife, Farmer Wants a”) often lay an egg on U.S. shores.

So are Americans finally ready to watch imported series?

Uncertainty lingers as to how receptive U.S. audiences will be to overseas productions, despite incentives to do so. Because with networks eager to balance the cost of their primetime lineups, there’s much to be said for airing such programs domestically as opposed to adapting them — especially when what made those shows popular is so frequently lost in translation.

Although it remains a rarity on the major networks, PBS, syndication and cable (and not just BBC America) regularly showcase British shows, from HBO’s collaborations with the BBC to Sci Fi Channel’s “Dr. Who” and spinoff “The Sarah Jane Adventures.” Soapnet’s latest sudser, “MVP,” hails from Canada.

Now NBC is making a similar bet by planning to air a British fantasy series, “Merlin,” and CBS will pad its summer originals with the Canadian-developed copshow “Flashpoint.” For the most part, though, nets are still primarily seeking to adapt formats, not transplant them.

Broadcasters’ reluctance to take this step is largely rooted in TV history. In the medium’s infancy, the U.S. provided the world with programming as Europe rebuilt from the ravages of World War II. American TV and movies thus enjoyed global appeal, while accents or — heaven forbid — subtitles stayed largely verboten in the States.

Today, though, with TV’s economics under duress — and the emergence of the very British Simon Cowell as a leading U.S. TV personality — there are several reasons to question and test that conventional wisdom.

As it stands, U.S. television is awash in an influx of British and Australian actors, albeit forced to adopt Yank accents (hello, Hugh Laurie). The fall will also bring a new onslaught of American versions of British programs — including “Life on Mars,” “The Eleventh Hour” and “Worst Week” — plus the Aussie hit “Kath & Kim.”

Given how easily a garbled accent, indecipherable allusion or misconstrued idiom can kill a joke, adapting comedy into a more culturally specific mode still makes sense. Even “The Office” and “Extras” — Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedic gems — occasionally suffer head-scratching moments.

By contrast, having watched plenty of British drama, there’s no reason to think the time-bending cop drama “Life on Mars” and science-mystery “The Eleventh Hour” couldn’t give it a go here in their original forms. The real shame is that most U.S. viewers will never see the brilliant British musical miniseries “Viva Blackpool” after their fleeting acquaintance with CBS’ wooden, utterly flat “Viva Laughlin.”

Granted, there will be elements that won’t warm to series where all that British talent gets to speak in their own voice. Even Canada carries potential impediments whenever someone says “about” (or rather, “aboot”), though there’s interactive fun to be had — and perhaps even a drinking game — by playing “Find the Canadian” when watching U.S.-produced shows that lens in Vancouver and Toronto.

Ultimately, shifting business models tend to compel new ways of thinking, and younger audiences will likely be less xenophobic than their parents. In addition, even if ratings lag marginally for imports, they’ll likely be offset by the savings gained in acquiring them — and the tradeoff in lower tune-in becomes less significant as DVRs such as TiVo render lead-in considerations less relevant.

Importing shows would deal a blow to the U.S. talent guilds, and after six months of labor discord and uncertainty, that’s unlikely to generate many tears among irritated studio moguls. Indeed, demonstrating the viability of such fare would, however callously, inevitably provide a bargaining chip in future negotiations.

Finally, in light of the economy’s aforementioned woes, the allure of exotic locales could become promotionally advantageous: With transportation prices soaring, think of it as an antidote to the weakened dollar: “Can’t afford to drive across state lines this year — much less visit London? Try turning on the telly!”

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