U.S. networks channel British content

Popular U.K. formats retooled for American auds

The Office” was just the beginning.

U.K. formats are flying across the Pond faster these days than the retired Concorde did, with British-originated sitcoms in the works at virtually every major U.S. broadcast net — and several more in the pipeline for cable auds as well.

Sketch shows, broad family laffers, cult faves — a wide variety of Britcoms have been retooled in recent months for U.S. viewers.

HBO picked up six episodes of “Little Britain USA,” the Yankee version of “Little Britain.” Meanwhile, ABC is developing a pilot based on U.K. sitcom “Roman’s Empire,” about a man who can’t escape his ex-girlfriend’s family — particularly her eccentric father.

Fox has several U.K. comedy adaptations in the works, including “Outnumbered,” based on the British series about parents attempting to rein in their three kids, and “Spaced,” about a man and woman who pose as married to secure a decent apartment.

CBS is reworking BBC’s “The Worst Week of My Life” (now retitled “Worst Week”) about the exploits of a couple attempting to get married.

Eye entertainment topper Nina Tassler finds comfort in adapting overseas shows. “It’s a unique opportunity to see how characters develop and how stories unfold,” she says. “That really gives you a lot of information about the inner workings of that series.”

Greg Lipstone, ICM’s head of international television and media, notes that the British marketplace “takes more risks than here in terms of creating and developing TV programs.”

But translating those properties for American markets can be tricky, he warns. “‘The Office’ was very close (to the U.K. version) yet was set up for a much longer-running show, which is what our market requires,” says Lipstone, whose clients include Granada America and BBC Worldwide Prods.

In that category, “Spaced” has perhaps the most controversial adaptation of the current bunch. The original U.K. version, from Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes, remains a cult classic in that country.

The trio was miffed, however, because they weren’t informed of the “Spaced” transformation, which is being spearheaded by McG’s Wonderland Sound and Vision (through Warner Bros. TV) and “Will & Grace” alum Adam Barr. The original creators and their fans have taken to calling the U.S. version “McSpaced” — and that’s not a term of affection.

“If they don’t care about the integrity of the original, why call it ‘Spaced’?” Pegg asked in a statement on his website. “Why not just lift the premise? Two strangers pretend to be a couple in order to secure residence of a flat/apartment. It’s hardly Ibsen.”

Hynes was even more blunt on a fansite, saying she was told that “no official, meaningful involvement (save wheeling us out to placate the fans) is possible.

“So don’t watch it, don’t think about it,” she told fans.

“Spaced” fans may have reason to worry: For much of the last decade, until “The Office” came on the scene, U.S. adaptations of British sitcoms fell flat.

In the 1970s, the networks were filled with British adaptations: “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company,” for example, were based on U.K. formats. But that pipeline halted in the 1980s as the networks went after more Americanized family sitcoms: “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “Family Ties” — all very much U.S. creations.

When the nets once again attempted to adapt Britcoms in the 1990s and the early part of this decade, they mostly fell flat: “Men Behaving Badly,” for example, or, in what was probably the loudest thump, “Coupling.”

But then came “The Office” — and both network execs and fans were reminded that, done right, Britcoms can be resized for the U.S. That wasn’t an easy feat. The U.K. “Office,” after all, already had rabid fans in the U.S.

These days, skittish network execs are also looking for pretested concepts, and there’s nothing like seeing actual tape of a show that’s been a proven success overseas. And it’s not just Britcoms making waves. NBC and Fox are also adapting laffers from Australia.

“We are constantly meeting with and hearing pitches from people all over the world,” says CBS Paramount Network TV prexy David Stapf.

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