Brits look to U.S. for drama lessons

Execs lament the lack of global hits

When the next global TV drama hit like “Lost” or “Mad Men” emerges, what are the chances that a big U.K. producer like the BBC or ITV Studios will be responsible for the show? Minimal, frankly, based on past experience.

Brits may be world beaters in entertainment and factual formats, thanks to shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “The X Factor,” but in international drama, the U.K. is totally eclipsed by the U.S.

The point was well made by BBC director-general Mark Thompson when he addressed the Edinburgh Television Festival, which ran Aug. 27-29.

In a refreshingly candid aside, he described the U.K.’s TV performance in the international marketplace as that of “a highly talented minnow.”

Net exports of TV services were worth a mere £198 million ($306 million) in 2008.

So can the Blighty minnow ever swim alongside whales such as Disney, News Corp. and Time Warner? Thompson reckons that to do so, U.K. producers should form more partnerships with creatively hot U.S. cable networks such as Showtime and AMC.

These collaborations, however, need to be strategically sound rather than done on an ad hoc basis.

“We need to find the right U.S. co-producer, probably in the cable space,” says Thompson, “and not just go forward one idea at a time, but to think along the lines of an entire genre, like sci-fi or horror.”

Media consultant David Graham, who runs Attentional, which offers advice and specialized services to those who develop, create or manage audiovisual content, has a different point of view.

He believes the U.K. needs to tap into Europe, where there are some 400 million homes. European partnerships could create sustainable financial models that would enable Blighty to compete head on with the U.S. studios, Graham says.

“Drama is key to British TV’s global expansion,” Graham maintains. “By admitting that the U.K. is somewhat parochial in our thinking, Mark was refreshingly honest.

Many countries are happy to play English-language dramas in primetime, dubbed or subtitled, but they’re almost always U.S. shows.”

British scribe Paul Abbott, another speaker at the confab, is convinced that before U.K. TV drama can walk tall on the global stage, structural reform is essential.

He urged British program commissioners to start thinking big. Instead of ordering shows in six-episode runs, he says the U.K. needs to emulate the U.S. and order at least 13 episodes of a returning drama series.

His own black comedy, “Shameless,” centered on working-class culture, took seven years and eight seasons of short runs before U.K. web Channel 4 extended the season to 22 episodes.

In contrast, the U.S. version of “Shameless,” which Warner Bros. is making for Showtime and is co-exec produced by John Wells, will debut as a 12-part series. That level of commitment has allowed producers to sign the cast to a seven-year contract, according to Abbott.

He adds: “I’ve lost count of the number of actors we’ve had to write out of ‘Shameless’ in the U.K. because of short-term contracts.”

The U.S. team-writing approach, still rare in Blighty where writers generally work solo, has created a show Abbott says he is very proud of.

“In the U.K., screenwriters will only work on their own stuff or on movies,” he says. “In the U.S., they realize the benefits to be gained from working collaboratively. This is another reason why their shows run for much longer than U.K. drama.”

Abbott rejected the claim that only the U.S. entertainment economy can afford to invest in high-end, long-running, returning drama series.

“It’s totally possible (to commit to drama without the U.S. level of funding). It costs nothing to develop an idea. Buying a script costs money, but it’s the cheapest part,” he says.

However, changing the U.K. TV drama mindset is unlikely to happen overnight.

As Thompson reminded his Edinburgh audience, one of the BBC’s big summer hits was “Sherlock,” a contempo take on the Conan Doyle detective classic.

Despite its unabashed modernity — this latest Holmes is addicted to his smart phone — the drama upheld one long-established British TV tradition: There are just three episodes.