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Lords of risky programming

A new wave of British shows is headed here. 'Masterpiece Theatre' they're not.

November 10, 2002|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

London — Meet the Kumars. They're in the process of immigrating to the U.S., where they'll change their family name to Ortega.

Like so many immigrants before them, they carry a burning desire to fit in and strike it rich in America. They also want to bring along a little something from the home country: a hotly coveted crossover TV show concept.

Thus "The Kumars at No. 42," a bizarre British talk show in which real guests interact with fake hosts, will become "The Ortegas" when NBC restages it for American audiences.

When it comes to TV, Anglo-American trade is flourishing, with envelope-pushing British programmers dishing up ever more peculiar fare and their U.S. counterparts unabashedly snapping it up quicker than you can say "risk-averse."

The Brits, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker freely admits, "are a great farm team."

Look what else they're cultivating here on the farm these days:

"The Office," which recently ended its run on BBC2, centers on a group of colleagues in a stationery company, going about their mundane workday, flirting and rejecting co-workers' advances as they break for tea, stealing Post-It notes, fighting vicious rounds of cubicle politics, and being trapped into baby-sitting a boss as he blows notes on a beer bottle while the rest of the staff has headed to the pub.

It looks like a documentary, has no laugh track and no obvious jokes. Rupert Gavin, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, the public broadcaster's commercial arm, frankly calls it weird. Yet it has won top awards recently as Britain's best sitcom. It's been so popular that the BBC sells a book of the scripts, side by side with cookbooks from its TV chefs. Americans will be able to decide for themselves in January, when it will air on cable's BBC America channel.

The upcoming drama "Grease Monkeys," as dark and as politically incorrect as "The Sopranos," portrays the world of a dishonest, drug-fueled South Asian car mechanic in Manchester. Mal Young, BBC's controller for drama series, calls it "racist, sexist, homophobic. It challenges every preconception." It's too early to say whether it will travel to the U.S.

The current much-hyped production is the BBC's "Fame Academy," a Friday-night talent contest with an element of "Big Brother." Aspiring stars have moved into London's biggest private mansion, Witanhurst House, which has been wired with cameras so viewers can spy on the drama and endless practicing leading up to each week's sing-off. Contestants are booted each week.

For a decade now, British TV executives and their counterparts across Europe have been scrambling genres, shaking up production techniques and mining unusual slices of life for television that falls far outside the circumscribed boundaries of four-camera sitcoms and cop dramas, or even the historical period dramas that populate PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

Americans have had a taste of what it's all about since the summer of 1999, with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and, later, "Survivor" and this summer's "American Idol," all of which took standard, tired "reality" formats and turned them into high-stakes prime-time drama. Cable's has prospered by adopting the Brits' reinvention of how-to shows, adding human tears and laughter to the humdrum room make-over on "Trading Spaces."

Now, the British are poised for a wholesale invasion, welcomed with open arms by U.S. executives. American television is in the midst of a crisis driven by an uncomfortable convergence of prohibitively high costs for traditional shows such as "Frasier" and "ER," fickle, fragmented audiences in a multichannel environment and increasingly complex financing schemes, and it's hungry for fresh ideas, especially economical ones.

British TV executives, Zucker says, "are more willing to take risks because the stakes are a little lower. They take risks we're not willing to take right away." That, in turn, "allows us to see things and then make a decision."

What the Brits have is talk shows, such as "The Kumars at No. 42" and, earlier, "Mrs. Merton" and "Ali G," in which the hosts are actors, in character, and the guests, not always clued in, are real. Sitcoms run without laugh tracks and in real time; real people get prime-time make-overs. Documentaries might be real or they might just be mockumentaries. There are plenty more Brit-style unscripted series on the way, such as the 15-night-in-a-row "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here," a sort-of "Survivor" for has-been celebrities that ABC is remaking for February.

Although the U.S. has been able to develop some of its own "reality" shows, such as "The Bachelor," executives say they will continue to buy plenty from abroad. In addition, says Andrea Wong, ABC's executive in charge of alternative programming, "the advantage is, I can see it on tape," instead of having to conceptualize it from a written proposal.

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