Those with some years on the circuit will remember the first wave of British shows on American screens – Steptoe and Son, Till Death Do Us Part and Man About the House became hits as Sanford and Son, All in The Family and Three’s Company respectively. All had one thing in common – all were produced by Americans.
A while back, I was sitting in an editing room in Burbank cutting The Krypton Factor for ABC. OK, it was a long while back. In the next suite, Paul Smith was putting the finishing touches to a US version of It’ll Be Alright on the Night. Flash forward a few years and Paul came in with Millionaire and the BBC with The Weakest Link. Those two formats were both British, both stylistically controlled by Brits, but actually produced by American production companies.
But now we have American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and anything Mark Burnett or Gordon Ramsay do. Created, sold and, most importantly, produced by Brits. Add to that the British companies set up in the US – BBC, 19, Shine – all with different business plans but crucially all getting face time with the networks.
Well, the Brits aren’t coming – they’re here – and if that’s the case, what’s next? I have three thoughts: drama, branded content and digital shorts.
Drama has never had the track record of comedy; The Office is a hit and a couple more Britcoms are coming soon, but scripted material has always been a challenge. During the Writers’ Strike, DRG-owned Portman Film and TV pitched all the networks with a range of UK and Australian hits – Doc Martin, Kingdom, Sea Patrol, Underbelly. We were treated extremely cordially, we got meetings with all the top execs and everyone screened everything (although colleagues cruelly put that down to the fact they had nothing else to do during the strike). As far as finished programmes go, there was clearly no place on network TV for British or Australian accents or the slower pace of the shows. As for taking the formats on a step: maybe, but probably with US producing partners.
A more realistic drama opening is in basic cable. With Mad Men, basic cable has finally got a certifiable hit. Ask yourself why TNT is showing The Closer and Saving Grace, while NBC is bringing back Gladiators and Knight Rider. Perhaps it’s because cable revenues have jumped from $8 billion to $28 billion in 10 years. The lesson: if you want to start pitching to anything with three letters, try AMC, IFC and TNT before you go to ABC, CBS and NBC.
Branded content has been a buzz phrase for a while. The challenge is that the brands don’t know the producers, the producers don’t know the brands, and the advertising agencies – the gatekeepers – control the budgets. But some of the big boys are certainly in the space, some have entertainment divisions, some have even done it – no prize for guessing that it’s WPP. The Brits and the Americans have always been separated by a common language; never has that been more apparent in the branded content business. When I was producing for Granada, we weren’t allowed to talk to advertisers – now we have to. Another opening perhaps? Well, yes if producers can learn to talk "eyeballs" "impressions" and "CPMs".
One way that producers can meet advertisers today is in the digital world. The production of digital shorts is the Wild West of the new "new media". DRG-owned i-Rights will launch its new website at MIPCOM with a range of made-for-digital product. Animation, live action drama and comedy sourced from new and established producers from all over the world. The barriers to entry are zero – upload to YouTube and they will come. Well, not quite. You need a plan, you need some branded support, but most of all you need some imagination.
Finally, you have to sit astride the Atlantic. Well, we have just opened for business in New York with DRG America and to quote Brandon Tartikoff, we can’t wait for the next big ride.
Jeremy Fox, CEO, Digital Rights Group