NEW YORK — The summer’s two biggest primetime hits, CBS’ “Survivor” and ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” are American adaptations of British series, but Don Taffner Jr. says forget about reworkings: He wants to sell U.S. networks a British sitcom intact and unchanged.
Taffner, VP of the New York-based distribution company DLT Entertainment, is marketing the eight episodes of a dysfunctional-family sitcom he’s producing in England with the BBC called “Why Did We Have Them.”
“We’ve produced this sitcom with the rhythm of an American comedy,” said Fred Barron, an American writer-producer and one of the three executive producers on “Why Did” with Taffner and John Bartlett.
In an almost unprecedented arrangement for a BBC sitcom, three of the five writers — Barron, Jim Armogida and Steve Armogida — are Americans. The two British writers are James Hendry and Ian Brown.
Barron said he also brought in two transplants from America: director Jay Sandrich (“The Cosby Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and veteran producer Faye Oshima (“Titus,” “Caroline in the City”) to consult with the British crew, which was not used to working with the typical American setup of four cameras taping simultaneously in real time.
The BBC will announce later this week that “Why Did” will join the network’s primetime schedule in the fall.
The cast is British, with Robert Lindsay (the “Horatio Hornblower” series) playing a grumpy, cantankerous dentist and Zoe Wanamaker (1999’s “David Copperfield” TV movie) as his cheerful, Pollyannaish wife. They have three kids ages 19 (Chris Marshall), 15 (Daniella Denby-Ashe) and 12 (Gabriel Thompson).
Taffner said he’s aware that it’s extremely unusual for a British series, even one with heavy American participation, to move intact across the Atlantic and land a primetime deal with an American network. The examples are few: There were two from the late ’60s, “The Avengers” (ABC) and “The Prisoner” (CBS), and the 1982 limited-run series “Q.E.D.,” with Sam Waterston on CBS.
But since the broadcast networks have begun harvesting Nielsen hay with original summer fare like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor,” Taffner said he’s hoping to get a “Why Did” deal for summer 2001.
Sources said each half-hour episode of the sitcom costs about $390,000, and the BBC license fee leaves a deficit for DLT of between $15,000 and $45,000 a half-hour. DLT has the right to sell the franchise if a U.S. network is interested in doing an American version.
DLT came to prominence in the early ’80s when it grossed more than $200 million from U.S. syndication of “Three’s Company,” an American version of the British series “Man About the House.” Some of the biggest sitcom hits are based on British series, including “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.”
Other possible outlets in the U.S. for “Why Did” include Comedy Central and Bravo, Taffner said.
If “Why Did” pulls in a sizable audience of British TV viewers, Barron said the BBC will probably commission more episodes, although the date when production resumes will depend on the schedules of Lindsay and Wanamaker.
Barron said it was refreshing to write and produce a comedy in England because “the network wasn’t constantly asking us to punch up the sentimentality — and there were very few restrictions in language and content.”