Brits seek primetime hits

ABC's Lee the latest top exec from other side of the pond

Here we go again — foreigners streaming across the porous U.S. borders, with funny accents and strange manners, taking jobs that once belonged to God-fearing Americans.

But enough about the continuing British invasion of U.S. television.

In the last few days, Paul Lee, the former head of BBC America, assumed the mantle of ABC Entertainment, replacing Stephen McPherson. Lee had previously been at ABC Family, where the channel’s breakthrough hit — “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” — has “American” right in the title.

Yet he’s just the latest in what has become a much-examined phenomenon, at least on the talent side — the parade of Brits registering a sizable imprint on TV, in front of or behind the cameras.

In addition to Lee, Peter Rice shifted to Fox Broadcasting last year and subsequently ascended to chairman of entertainment for the Fox Networks. Another BBC alum, Paul Telegdy, oversees unscripted fare at NBC.

Piers Morgan is being discussed to replace Larry King at CNN. And any roster of influential talent or producers risks omitting a litany of bold-faced names, from Simon Cowell to Hugh Laurie, Mark Burnett to Nigel Lythgoe. (Inasmuch as this is Variety’s preservation issue, in the interest of self-preservation, this might also be a good time to mention Variety Group President Neil Stiles as well.)

Much of this is happenstance, although there is something nice about having someone around who casually uses “brilliant” in a meeting and isn’t afraid to say “bollocks.” Some of it has to do with British performers being well-trained and, as they’re happy to tell you, relatively inexpensive, at least in the early stages. But it also speaks to a globalization of the media business that has been in the works for years.

In a broader sense, the British wave is occurring at an interesting time, given political, economic and cultural cross-currents in the U.S.

Television represents the most populist entertainment medium, which perhaps explains why for years there was a perception Americans would resist watching accented talent. It’s no accident most European, Australian and even Canadian actors featured Stateside still affect a Yank dialect. Even now, British voices mostly emanate from people wearing uncomfortable-looking costumes in tony PBS period pieces.

It would be nice to think greater acceptance (at least in the unscripted space) of on-air personalities like Cowell reflects maturation by U.S. viewers, happily coinciding with the financial necessity of producing shows capable of appealing to multiple international territories.

At the same time, though, a strong, lingering jingoism remains in the U.S., particularly in conservative media circles. Even before the inauguration of President Obama, the enthusiasm he inspired among European democracies was viewed with suspicion. Awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize was seen not merely as premature but a negative — the approbationfrom abroad a sign of disconnect with U.S. interests and values.

More pertinent than such parochialism, perhaps, are underlying structural differences in British and American TV. In the U.K., producers generally have the luxury of producing six or eight episodes of a series, often allowing a single writer to pen every script. While U.S. cable networks provide shorter orders than broadcasters, there’s still a major distinction between that and replicating a concept 100 times.

For every successful transplant operation like “The Office,” then, there have been multiple rejections, a la ABC’s version of “Life on Mars” or CBS’ “The Eleventh Hour.”

Ultimately, the careers of Lee, Rice and others will be contingent on how well their decision-making connects with viewers. On the plus side, there are signs that more unites than divides the global audience, and some would argue experience in the U.K. — which historically lacked the same level of resources as the U.S. — leaves them particularly well equipped for a scaled-down, cost-conscious TV universe.

However that scenario pans out, the influx of British execs and talent could be TV’s unique wrinkle on the special relationship.

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