TV feeds into U.S. inferiority complex

Academy Awards, Brits affirm foreign clout

If the scene-stealing performance by Europeans at the Academy Awards — including a sweep of acting categories — left Americans nursing an inferiority complex, they had better stay away from their television sets.

Several media accounts sounded taken aback by Hollywood’s relegation to “bit player,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, at its annual prom; still, anybody paying attention to the smaller screen could already testify to the overseas invasion. Not only has the U.S. begun importing leading actors and competition-show judges from abroad, but series concepts and reality TV formats are abundant.

Nor is it just elitist snobs — public TV viewers with a haughty taste for “Masterpiece Theater” — who have come to suspect the British might currently be delivering the best TV programming on the planet, which includes prestige fare for PBS, HBO and Showtime as well as BBC America.

The U.K. always excelled at costume dramas, and its wackiest TV comedy (think “Benny Hill”) found its way to U.S. shores. Now, however, BBC America showcases the breadth of British offerings, from gritty crime dramas to absurdist sketch shows. There have even been inroads in areas where the continent once lagged behind, such as “Torchwood,” a clever, slightly tongue-in-cheek sci-fi series out of the “Doctor Who” school.

Although adapting scripted programs for domestic consumption is nothing new, expansion has occurred there as well, from HBO’s “In Treatment” (culled from an Israeli premise) and ABC’s “Ugly Betty” (Colombia) to NBC’s “The Office” and a planned ABC series based on “Life on Mars” — courtesy of the U.K.

U.S. creativity and personnel aren’t quite as devalued as the dollar, but it’s pretty clear the playing field has leveled. Indeed, scanning the starring roles awarded those without U.S. birth certificates, it’s a wonder CNN’s resident fear-monger Lou Dobbs hasn’t begun raging about defending the border against this incursion.

Faced with exploding cable options competing for proven talent, producers began tapping Europe some time ago, seeking able performers on TV budgets. The newcomers came well trained and provided fresh faces to casting directors tired of chasing the same handful of approved names.

Call it the curse of Hugh Laurie (that “House” guy? Yep, British), but the influx appeared especially pronounced this season, albeit with countries of origin obscured behind perfectly affected Yank accents. Imports included Kevin McKidd (“Journeyman”), Michelle Ryan (“Bionic Woman”), Anna Friel (“Pushing Daisies”), Jonny Lee Miller (“Eli Stone”), Lena Headey (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), Alex O’Loughlin and Sophia Myles (“Moonlight”); and “New Amsterdam’s” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Zuleikha Robinson. They join such existing standouts as Laurie, Lennie James (“Jericho”), Dominic West (“The Wire”) and half the “Without a Trace” cast.

Even in reality TV — and hell, let’s just blame everything on Simon Cowell — it’s seemingly become mandatory for competition shows to employ at least one British judge, as if they invented snide banter on that side of the Pond.

According to Paul Telegdy, BBC Worldwide America’s exec VP of content & production, the migration was logical given the head start Europe enjoyed in producing unscripted TV, establishing a track record and thus providing comfort to risk-averse execs.

“It’s been a staple of European television much longer than (in the U.S.),” he says. “It’s not a new genre for us. … That means there’s a pipeline of ideas.”

Granted, the overall impact shouldn’t be overstated, inasmuch as the U.S. was for years largely a one-way street — exporting programs without much flowing back in its direction. That tradition can be attributed to a combination of know-how and nationalism, while markets in Europe and Asia — weaned on U.S.-produced material as they recovered from World War II — were less resistant to American movies and English-language dubbing.

In that context, blurring arbitrary parochial boundaries is admirable, even welcome. TV can certainly use a touch of class, whatever the source’s origins. It’s primarily bad news, really, for American actors waiting at auditions, especially if they overhear an accent from the same character type sitting next to them.

That said, Telegdy stresses that any discussion of an “invasion,” British or otherwise, requires a bit of perspective, considering the U.S.’ top scripted programs remain hugely popular overseas. “The best television in the world is made by Americans for Americans,” he says. “There is no inferiority complex needed.”

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