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BBC finds U.S. fit for Brit hits

Worldwide exec defying the TV odds

LONDON For many a U.K. webhead, leaving Blighty to test the vastly different U.S. TV market has borne mixed results. Highly gifted British execs Michael Jackson and Jane Root — like predecessors including Michael Grade in the ’80s — have found it challenging to replicate their U.K. success on the other side of the pond.

Culturally and structurally, U.S. TV is totally different to the U.K.,” says an industry insider. “There are fewer slots available and a lot of the talent is sewn up by the studios.”

So can Jane Tranter, BBC Worldwide’s new California-based joint head of production, defy the odds and nurture a shingle that aims to spin Brit hits into U.S. and global gold?

ITV’s former director of television Simon Shaps, who used to oversee Granada America, says, “As a Brit, developing and selling scripted series to U.S. networks is going to be a challenge, but if anybody can do it she can.”

Detractors complained about Tranter’s autocratic style, but even they were impressed by her track record. Be it high-concept fare like “Life on Mars,” period adaptations such as “Bleak House” and “Cranford,” or the reinvention of “Doctor Who” and slick co-productions with HBO including “Rome” and “Five Days,” the drama maven has found buyers among U.S. broadcasters, pubcasters and cablers.

Tranter herself wouldn’t comment, but her new boss, Worldwide’s director of content and production Wayne Garvie, says: “In the U.K., Jane reinvented what drama could achieve, especially on (flagship channel) BBC1 with shows like ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ Many of these shows have already played successfully to American audiences on BBC America.”

Garvie says that having someone on the ground in L.A. who knows about drama has helped the net connect with willing U.S. viewers.

“Programs like ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘The Office’ (originally a BBC show) demonstrate that U.S. audiences have an appetite for formats that come from outside North America,” he adds.

Garvie is convinced that Tranter, working alongside L.A.-based Paul Telegdy, will take Worldwide’s existing American production business to another level.

Says a British programmer with experience of the U.S. market, “You wouldn’t bet against Jane Tranter, but you have to get the management structure right, and from the outside it’s hard to know who will be in charge.”

Tranter, who takes over in 2009, will report to both Garvie and BBC Worldwide America’s prexy Garth Ancier, so it is unclear who ultimately will call the shots.

But there is little doubt Tranter understands the requirements of American audiences. Some of her most successful U.K. skeins like “Spooks” (aka “MI-5” Stateside) and “Hustle” suggest a commissioning sensibility in tune with U.S.-style production values.

David Graham, who runs U.K.-based entertainment consultancy outfit Attentional, which for the past three years has evaluated scripted pilots for NBC, thinks Tranter will give American auds what they want.

“I think she is attracted to working in L.A. because she wants to move British drama in that direction,” Graham says. “Jane is a very high-caliber executive who immediately recognizes what needs to be done in order to give BBC Worldwide a much better chance of success in scripted shows.

“This is the kind of approach epitomized by shows like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lost.’ They are very American, but their formats manage to accommodate a lot people from different nationalities — and boy could we Brits learn from that.”