A special relationship

RDF USA, Mentorn USA, Lion USA, Granada America, Darlow Smithson... the British have invaded the previously inscrutable world of American television. A decade into the explosion of uk factual programs and reality formats on us television, what are we to make of this special relationship?
June 1, 2008

RDF USA, Mentorn USA, Lion USA, Granada America, Darlow Smithson… the British have invaded the previously inscrutable world of American television. A decade into the explosion of UK factual programs and reality formats on US television, what are we to make of this special relationship?

The very different television traditions in the two regions make for very different TV landscapes, but have fostered an unexpected synergy that shows no signs of abating. ‘Since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, British inventiveness in terms of new ideas and new formats has been at a premium in the US,’ says John Willis, chief executive at the London office of Mentorn, which will make 45 hours for US television this year. ‘There was a time when you couldn’t get across the threshold of a lot of the major networks, but now you get welcomed pretty warmly.’

The decades the British spent nurturing the factual format, whilst Americans focused on dramas and sitcoms, have produced a region of talented, creative program-makers. ‘In the UK, they’ve really been a step ahead of where the US landscape has been in terms of creating, scheduling and producing,’ says Chris Coelen, CEO of RDF USA. ‘There’s a depth of talent and a huge tradition and heritage that we don’t have in the United States.’

That tradition includes a broadcasting climate in which a huge range of factual plays on the major networks in primetime. It is lighter on its feet, and more diverse than its American counterpart. ‘In the UK, we have a lot of factual, but it tends to eat itself quite quickly,’ says Jonathan Hewes, the deputy chief executive of London’s Wall to Wall, and the man in charge of US operations. ‘We tend to innovate, with shorter runs; two or three years and they’re gone and then a new thing comes along.’

The two sport different models for creating television, according to Willis. ‘What you’ve got in the US is a high-level, effective factory which is creating a mass production of entertainment,’ he says. ‘We’re much more like a little sort of boutique here, developing and sculpting things on a small scale.’

The UK has a less gripping fear of failure than us broadcasters, making for different approaches to testing new shows. ‘In the States, it’s actually a long pseudo scientific process developing an idea, and obviously their development team and their marketing team and their sales team are sifting through the idea on many levels,’ says Nick Catliff, managing director of Lion Television in London. ‘Then you go to pilot, then you have endless agonizing, and often quite useful focus grouping. By the time you actually get to make the show you may have been in some kind of pre-production for at least a year. Whereas here with the kind of programs we make – the format show, the factual entertainment and specialist factual – you pilot on-air. You make the first series.’

With so many short runs on British television, programs can sometimes come and go without making much of a splash in the UK, only to be bought up internationally and become big hits. Such was the case for Lion’s Cash Cab, which had two languid runs on ITV, but went on to sell in 40 countries – and become a hit for Discovery in the US. ‘I can tell you why it’s a great hit in other countries but can’t tell you why it didn’t take off here,’ muses Catliff, who is now launching the format in India.

With an ever-growing list of hit formats that have successfully played out in the US, both regions recognize that a productive future lies in working together in a way that works best for both parties. For the biggest British indies, that means setting up shop in the US – so programs aren’t at the mercy of the super-strong pound. It also often means more full commissions and formats, less international coproductions.

‘We’re doing a lot of series out of North America, particularly with National Geographic in the States,’ says Hewes. ‘But we’re not doing the three-, four- and six-parters that Channel 4< and Discovery used to. My impression is that nobody really is. There's both an editorial and a TV form difference, so that people want very local or customized content.'

‘I think the compromise within coproductions has held coproductions back,’ says Willis. ‘What is changing is people are happy to try to make more than one version. The pressure on each individual marketplace is intense. Programs that are made with compromises, and sit slightly uneasily between a couple of territories or a couple of nations, are more difficult.’

Catliff has watched copros evolve into a different model. ‘You can’t get away with a copro now where you make the same version of the same show and three versions, tweaked a little bit. You have to put a lot more of the budget into making two very different versions. People are much, much clearer about that.’

Lion is just finishing The Hottest Place on Earth for BBC1 and Discovery, resulting in substantially different programs, according to Catliff: ‘When you’re coproing between the BBC and commercial television in the States, they’ve got lots and lots of commercial breaks. There is loads and loads of teasing in, teasing out, which we don’t have here, and that changes the whole tone of the program.’ The demographics are also different, with the UK trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, while Discovery focuses on a much narrower target demo.

Significant style differences remain, which makes it difficult to find common ground. ‘In the US we very much need story-driven material, where in the UK they are more about the observation,’ says Sam Zoda, EVP of Granada America. ‘We Americans need the story slapped in our face. It needs to be very particular.’ He cites as an example Big Brother USA, which only succeeded when it was reformatted to us tastes, concentrating on quickly unfolding storylines.

All agree that the American style places the action front and center. ‘It’s more visceral, it is more immediate, and frankly it is more pumped up – it’s broader brushstrokes,’ says Catliff. ‘In the UK, clearly that has changed over the last five or 10 years: our versions are becoming much more immediate as well. But the American cable market has moved on a bit. Their appetite is getting richer and richer for that kind of thing.’

The lull in coproductions is likely to be temporary, according to Willis, who predicts an increase in docs of interest to a global audience. ‘While we have an enormous amount of factual entertainment, the world has gotten so complex and so difficult, and at the same time it is so joined up by some of the big issues like global warming or terrorism, or the global economy, that actually in lots of ways there is more opportunity to make more serious programs,’ says Willis. He also sees the future as having much more space for serious, authored programming: ‘People are realizing, maybe on both sides of the Atlantic, that one of the most valuable dimensions to any serious factual program is the voice behind it, whether it is the onscreen talent or whether it is the director.’

As American West Coast networks continue to mine the relatively new field of factual, they are beginning to venture, albeit slowly and gingerly, into less formatted fare. Shows which might come dangerously close to fitting under the name ‘documentary.’

‘One of the interesting things with American networks is they have broadened the range of the factual programs they do,’ says Hewes at Wall to Wall. ‘NBC just did the US version of The Baby Borrowers, which is a slight departure from conventional reality, which itself has moved from Survivor and Fear Factor to Wife Swap and Supernanny and now The Baby Borrowers and Who Do You Think You Are?, which is to be welcomed.’

The genealogy history hybrid WDYTYA? represents a marked departure from NBC’s traditional reality fare. Although the program features celebrities, it has a meandering, unformatted style. ‘One of the challenges we’ve had with Who Do You Think You Are? is although it was one of the highest-rated shows in the UK, it’s a very classic-looking, conventional documentary: it doesn’t have a winner; it doesn’t have obvious format points,’ says Hewes.

In his previous life as an agent, RDF’s Coelen tried to sell the format for Wall to Wall to no avail: ‘People looked at the program and said, ‘We just don’t understand why this works. It’s slow, it’s boring, it’s just not an interesting program.’ Same thing with Dancing with the Stars, everybody over and over passed on the show. And they saw that eventually, ‘Wow, it’s rating in the UK and it’s rating in Australia. Why don’t we just give it a shot?”

In buying formats like Borrowers and WDYTYA?, some American broadcasters are venturing into an arena from which they have thus far steered clear: public service television. Although British broadcasting today is undeniably a commercial industry, the public service heritage continues to affect the programs making it onto screens. Audiences are used to being challenged by programs which are informative and entertaining. Broadcasters are looking for ways to marry popular, highly rated programming with public service underpinnings.

The best example of this is Jamie’s School Dinners, Channel 4′s four-part 2005 series in which crusading chef Jamie Oliver shone a harsh spotlight on school meals, succeeding in a change in government policy. Says Catliff, ‘You get a big audience, you get loads of commendations, loads of profile and you’re on the side of the angels. That is a win on every level for the broadcaster. I’d love to have made that show. I’d love to have had anything to do with it whatsoever. It was the perfect British show for our decade.’

Indeed, in the UK, where television has always been taken seriously as an influential and quality medium (in comparison to the US’ concept of the ‘boob tube’) and one of its proudest exports, broadcasters continue to look for ways to use it to improve the world. Seeking to replicate the success of School Dinners, broadcasters commission programs trying to effect changes on both a societal and individual level, including C4′s recent food season, which attacked the battery farming industry. ‘What they really want, is they say, ‘Give me a program which has impact,” says Catliff. ”If it gets a big audience, that’s great, but I want impact. I want to be talked about in the papers, I want to be spread out across the Web, I want people to look at me on YouTube.’ And the public campaigns at the moment appear to be one of the best ways of doing that. There are very few American shows which really, really take off there in the way that some of the British ones do.’

Indeed, the extent to which us broadcasters will follow this path remains to be seen. Coelen says it’s difficult to secure the same attention for programs in the US that you can in the UK, with its vibrant newspaper industry sharply tuned to what is playing on the television. ‘With Shaq’s Big Challenge,’ in which basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal tackles teenage obesity, Coelen notes, ‘we were trying to get it to be something that would live in multiple sections of the newspaper. Ultimately, in the program, he went to the Governor of Florida and got him to change menus in Florida. But the amount of news coverage that got was nothing.’

One type of program which is unlikely to find a home on the West Coast is the single documentary. Still relatively common, if beleaguered, in the UK, it is all but extinct in America. ‘The difficulty in the US is because of the commerciality, they generally don’t want one-offs – if they are going to promote something and run something they generally want a longer run of episodes,’ says Coelen. ‘Why put the same amount of marketing into something if you’re just going to get one episode out of it instead of 22 episodes? And you’re not going to get 22 episodes out of The Boy who Gave Birth To His Twin.’

Zoda of Granada America agrees. ‘I doubt there is longevity to sheer documentary-style programming. It’s not the sort of market that is going to sustain a company. We are a commercial venture so we have to go for the formatable.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.