Brits hunt for drama dollars abroad

U.K. TV confident about long-running export

LONDON — London may be the entertainment format capital of the world, but drama exports have lagged. However, hopes are growing that drama will become a true international goldmine.

It’s not as if there haven’t been sales. For years, U.K. TV folk have tried to turn a homegrown drama idea into a long-running series on a U.S. network. Invariably, however, shows based on Brit dramas have either stumbled at the pilot stage or gotten axed after season one. (Near-misses include Granada’s hard-boiled crime skein “Cracker,” canceled after a 16-episode run on ABC.)

For the 2007-08 TV season, guarded optimism surrounds U.S. versions of high-concept Brit cop hit “Life on Mars,” created by London indie Kudos and skedded for ABC midseason, and CBS’ “Viva Laughlin,” based on quirky BBC musical “Viva Blackpool.”

Although the arrival of David E. Kelley’s adaptation of “Mars” is coming later than expected because of reported casting issues, and “Laughlin” (premiering Oct. 18) is on many early cancellation watch lists, Brit producers feel that they’re getting closer to mirroring the success of other genres represented by “Big Brother” and “The Office.”

“It’s only a matter of time before someone cracks this,” says Alex Graham, CEO of U.K. shingle Wall to Wall.

Graham’s north London-based company is one of a growing number of British indies that have proved equally adept at creating factual formats and original drama series that win big domestic audiences.

Wall to Wall’s celebrity genealogy show “Who Do You Think You Are?” for BBC1 is exciting interest across the Atlantic. But Graham thinks before that wins a U.S. deal, Wall to Wall could clinch contracts for two dramas generating enthusiasm in the U.S.: “New Tricks,” the cop show that uses comedy as much as suspense, and romantic drama “Glasgow Kiss.”

He believes both shows can alter the lingering perception that much London-made TV drama is too dour to score internationally.

“Historically, it’s always been quite hard getting changed format deals on British drama,” Graham admits. “But the success of shows like ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ have created a real appetite for dramas that are edgier, quirkier and funnier.

“British drama has become less parochial and more willing to think about what audiences really want from drama, as programs like ‘Footballers’ Wives’ and ‘Spooks’ (aka ‘MI-5’ Stateside) have demonstrated.”

At BBC Worldwide, based in west London, director of content and production Wayne Garvie agrees that British TV drama may be poised to follow nonscripted fare as a U.K. export success story.

“The U.S. studios are very, very interested in talking to Brits about drama co-productions because the pressure on budgets is so intense,” he says. “We are making a very different kind of drama these days.”

He describes “Hotel Babylon,” about the steamy side of life in a British hotel, produced for the BBC by Carnival, as a perfect example of a contemporary, accessible show.

“British drama is a lot more internationally friendly than it used to be,” says one New York-based producer. “But there are still issues about the number of episodes and ensuring the stories genuinely translate in foreign markets.”