By Scott Collins
July 21, 2008
In the last few years, we've welcomed Anne Robinson, the snarky host of "The Weakest Link," and Piers Morgan, the harrumphing judge on "America's Got Talent." We've kicked back with Nigel Lythgoe, the naughty judge on "So You Think You Can Dance," and that show's host, the barefoot glamazon Cat Deeley. Oh, and a hearty hullo to some guy named Simon Cowell.
Now comes the latest import from the United Kingdom, a duo who go by the billing Ant & Dec. They are the hosts of ABC's game “Wanna Bet?,” which debuts tonight and is described by its producer as a hybrid of "Stupid Human Tricks" and the well-worn celebrity-panel format, à la "What's My Line?" A typically nutty, YouTube-worthy segment features an eccentric-looking man who claims to be able to identify compact discs by licking their labels.
It may be hard for Americans to understand how huge Ant & Dec are in Britain, because despite their broad exposure on the U.K. version of " American Idol," they're still pretty close to totally unknown here. Spending an hour or so with them on the sunny pool deck of their West Hollywood hotel, as I did last week, meant being disturbed by not even one fan or industry well-wisher. So imagine Ryan Seacrest, if he were two people, spoke with the "Geordie" accent of northern England and was even more ubiquitous than he already is.
When producer Phil Gurin managed to get them on the phone within a couple of days to pitch "Wanna Bet?," he told me, "I considered myself lucky. These guys are in such demand over in Europe."
With seemingly every other British host jumping the pond, America promised conquerable territory. But the pair was cagey about the right opportunity.
"We've never hosted these over here. We always wanted to give it a go," Ant, the darker and sharper-tongued of the pair, whose full name is Anthony McPartlin, told me. But "we kind of had a rule where we said we're not just going to do something in the States for the sake of it. We would host a show only if we would host the same show back home."
That stipulation proved a low hurdle, though, because back home, through broadcaster ITV, they've hosted seemingly everything: "Pop Idol," "Britain's Got Talent," "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" and a variety program called “Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.”
Dec, the soft-spoken partner whose full name is Declan Donnelly, sees "Wanna Bet?" -- which ABC ordered as a limited summer series of six episodes -- as an example of "what we specialize in: big, fun family shows."
Whether the ABC experiment works, they likely won't be the last British emcees panning for gold in the badlands of American television. Ant & Dec are living proof that fashionable wisdom about the world's being flat applies nowhere with as much force as in network programming.
Note that nearly every major reality franchise of the last decade originated overseas, including "Idol," "Dancing With the Stars," "Fear Factor," "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The reasons for this trend have been well documented elsewhere, but suffice it to say that foreign broadcasters, many of whom lacked the deep pockets of their American counterparts, had grown adept over the 1980s and '90s at developing cheap, localized shows around contests and stunts. That's given the British, especially, an expertise in reality programming that American network chiefs, always on the lookout for inexpensive programs with youth appeal, have yet to exhaust.
Just look at the upcoming network schedules. Fox has "Secret Millionaire," based on the British show in which a wealthy person goes incognito in a community to give away money later. And NBC's restaurant competition "The Chopping Block" is based on an Australian show.
"Wanna Bet?," which is loosely adapted from a long-running German show called "Wetten, dass ...?," doesn't look likely to dominate the ratings charts, although stranger things have happened. Ant & Dec seem to view it as just another stop on their uneven but curiously blessed career path.
The pair grew up in the industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, meeting as teenagers on "Byker Grove," a BBC children's television program set at a youth center. They became best friends and developed a following among teenage fans. Thus their surprise when a producer canned the duo once they hit adulthood.
"Eighteen-year-old guys don't hang around youth centers, or if they do, they're kind of weird," Ant said. Still, they were flummoxed to get "pensioned off," as he put it. "We were not entirely sure what was gonna happen next," he added.
They didn't have to wait long. The pair, going by their TV-character names PJ & Duncan, formed a band and repositioned themselves as pop stars, building a short catalog of minor hits.
Another kids' show on the BBC brought them back to television in the mid-'90s, where they've since firmly planted themselves in the British pop-culture firmament. One typical stunt had them punking Cowell by showing up for an "American Idol" audition in Texas disguised as breathtakingly talentless break dancers (their show "Takeaway" aired the clip, although it didn't run in America).
The partnership appears remarkably stress-free for a showbiz act that's lasted 20 years. "If you count the number of arguments we've had, it's not that many," Ant said. "Probably one every five years."
"Which is probably deeply unhealthy," Dec shot back.
Spending more time in America presents an attractive option; though they don't know Los Angeles well, they say they enjoy recognizing locations they've seen on "Entourage" or other favorite shows.
Their future here will likely depend on how American viewers respond to "Wanna Bet?" But then again, they have plenty to do back home.
At one point in the interview, the pair described a contestant on the ABC show who claimed he could solve a Rubik's Cube while entirely underwater. Then Ant & Dec realized neither could recall whether the guest had actually completed the stunt during taping.
"Did he do it?" Dec said, as if asking himself. "He did it in rehearsal."
Ant demurred. "I can't remember if he did it on the show or not."
A moment of quiet followed.
"Well, we did shoot it last year," Ant said with a laugh. "We've done a few shows in between."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org
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