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From Tube to Telly, the Exchange Is Pop Culture

Television: Carsey-Werner breaks ground by producing U.S. and British versions of 'That '70s Show.'

April 05, 1999|SUSAN KARLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Down a quiet street along the Thames River, just outside of London, television history is being made. Here, in Teddington Studios, the Carsey-Werner Co. is taping a British version of Fox's "That '70s Show." Same six small-town teenagers. Different accents.

What's so groundbreaking about this event is that it marks the first time an American company has produced both American and British versions of the same show. Instead of syndicating the American program in the United Kingdom or selling the format rights to a British production company, the Studio City-based Carsey-Werner hired a British creative team and cast, and set about re-shooting the same story lines with references to and slang from 1976 England.

The series--retitled "Days Like These"--is now airing on the British network ITV. The episodes are 2 1/2 minutes longer than their U.S. counterparts and, instead of fictional Point Place, Wis., are set in Luton, a real blue-collar town near London. The garage where the kids hang out will sport a David Bowie instead of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders poster. One episode will substitute Prince Charles for a visiting President Ford, while another recasts a Thanksgiving dinner as a family meal.

In the mid-'70s, music trends migrated west across the Atlantic. So, the U.K. version highlights fading glam rock and emerging disco and punk scenes, the latter of which had yet to reach American shores.

"So far, we haven't got a bicentennial episode," says John Bartlett, the show's London-based producer. "I'm just living in fear that there's going to be one."

In those days, the U.S. and U.K. were much further apart ideologically. Simon Bates, a legendary British disc jockey and chronicler of both nations' pop culture, sets the scene: "We had no interest in anything creative you were doing. We thought we were more intelligent and better read, while America was still in the Jurassic era. We had Bowie and the Stones, and you had Bachman Turner Overdrive and the Allman Brothers."

The one exception: Polyester was everywhere. "If you struck a match at a party, you could be in danger of wiping out a population," Bates says.

But more than just an exercise in bicultural translation, the Carsey-Werner project signals the next phase of a burgeoning relationship between the British and American TV industries. In the past, the two countries simply regarded each other as potential co-producers, places for new talent, and markets in which to sell completed shows or format rights.

That strategy continues: This midseason, CBS added "Payne," a remake of BBC's "Fawlty Towers" starring John Larroquette and JoBeth Williams to its schedule. And last development season, the countries began creating shows specifically for each other's markets. ABC's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," from the London-based Hat Trick Productions, became the first British series to successfully air with relatively few changes on a major American network in prime time, though ABC sitcom star Drew Carey was hired to host the show. For next season, Hat Trick is attempting a similar strategy with another of its hit shows, "Have I Got News for You," while creating some first-run syndication reality shows for this market.

NBC's production arm, NBC Studios, is shooting a U.S. version of the hit British ITV hourlong dramatic comedy "Cold Feet," using the same British scripts. The network has also commissioned original pilots from British producers Simon Nye, creator of the British "Men Behaving Badly" (which spawned NBC's recent failed sitcom of the same name) and "Cold Feet" creator Mike Bullen.

Meanwhile, Jay Tarses, the creator of NBC's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and the father of ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses, went to Britain last year to create pilots for Channel 4 and Rupert Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting. And producer Dick Wolf has toyed with the idea of a U.K. version of NBC's "Law & Order," based on British legal and penal codes.

"We've moved beyond just adapting the show formats and started to recognize and identify the truly talented British writers who can create something for American television," says Karey Burke, NBC's senior vice president of prime-time series. "They are not adapting British TV shows, they are creating brand-new shows from whole cloth that may then get sold back to British television, which as far as I know is a brand-new thing. There are American writers, like Jay Tarses, who went over during the last year and created shows for British television. And that's a new thing. So it's happening both ways."

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