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British, U.S. TV Producers Forging Atlantic Alliance

In their attempts to bolster ratings, American television officials are looking to Britain with new fervor. Just last month, top CBS programming executives Howard Stringer, Kim LeMasters and Barbara Corday were meeting with their BBC counterparts here to discuss possible co-productions.

“We were talking to CBS in general terms,” said Mark Shivas, head of drama and TV serials for the BBC. “There’s a long-standing relationship between us and Howard Stringer (president of the CBS Broadcast Group) that goes back many years.”

At the moment, low-rated CBS may need the BBC more than the BBC needs CBS. But the balance is beginning to shift. Rising costs have prompted British broadcasters to look more favorably on accepting money and creative input from abroad.

“We have no long-running series planned for which we need major co-production money,” Shivas says, “but I can see it in the future because of rising prices. There are ways of doing series co-productions, and we will find them. First we need a project we all like.”

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The British have sold series formats to the United States before--including the premises for “Three’s Company,” “All in the Family” and this season’s “Dear John"--and the number of TV movie and miniseries co-production deals between British and American broadcasters has vastly increased in the past few years.

Successful series co-ventures have proved elusive, however. Nevertheless, both sides are now examining ways to collaborate on episodic programming. CBS, whose executives declined to comment on the recent meetings with the BBC, has already commissioned a pilot for an action-adventure series called “Outpost,” a co-production between Columbia Pictures TV and HTV, one of Britain’s commercial channels, to be shot in Britain.

American producers are also looking to Canada, Australia and France for co-financing. Both ABC’s “Mission: Impossible” and CBS’ “Dolphin Cove” this season were Paramount co-productions with Australia’s Network Nine. And cable’s USA Network has two co-production series currently filming: “The Hitchhiker” (with a French partner, Atlantique) and “The Ray Bradbury Theater” (with England’s Granada TV and France’s Ellipse).

“The gap between the licensing fee provided by the network and the actual production costs has widened over the years both here and in America,” explained Sydney Perry, managing director of London Weekend Television International, “so we all need to find partners to bridge that gap.”

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Satisfying two different cultures is not easy, however, as ABC discovered with its recently canceled series “A Fine Romance.” A co-production between IndieProd/Phoenix/New World Television, London Weekend Television and France’s TF-1, the one-hour romantic comedy bombed opposite “The Cosby Show’ and “A Different World.”

“If there were any problems with the show, they weren’t because of the co-production arrangement,” said Ed Gradinger, president and chief executive officer of New World TV Group which put up the lion’s share of the financing and retained creative control of the series.

“We had terrific partners, and they made very few demands. We sent them copies of the scripts, and they didn’t try to get in our way. They helped finance the show, which made life easier. You have to admit the show had phenomenal production values.”

“A Fine Romance,” about a divorced couple who co-host a TV travel show, starred Margaret Whitton (American) and Christopher Cazenove (British).

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What went wrong? Nick Elliott, controller of drama at London Weekend Television, said: “At the end of the day, a lot of shows are just not good enough. On this one, we never got right all the things you have to get right. It didn’t have a single strong writer-producer at the center. I don’t think the three partners caused the problem.”

On the other hand, Elliott admitted, “The best way to make a series is to do it yourself, without partners. With partners, there are endless phone calls. But today, no TV company can afford to make all its major drama without a partner of some kind.”

“A Fine Romance” was London Weekend Television’s second stab at a series co-produced with an American partner. The first, the 1984 police series “Dempsey and Makepeace,” starring Michael Brandon and Glynis Barber, was syndicated in the United States by Tribune Entertainment, which had a minority stake in the show.

“There’s no way you can consult daily with a minority partner,” said Elliott, who did not enjoy being in the minority position on “A Fine Romance.”

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London Weekend Television will be the majority partner in its next two co-productions--a series of “The Saint” movies (with D.L. Taffner) and a series of movies based on stories written by Frederick Forsyth (with Blair Entertainment/USA Network).

“I’ll get involved with a co-production series if the deal looks good and the show looks good,” Elliott said. “It’s very, very hard to do a co-production series. The differences between two countries are harder to satisfy on a long-term basis.”

New World’s Gradinger has the same concerns. Co-productions, he cautions, cannot be “thewave of the future”, but they can be “a way to do certain shows that can fit within the requirements of some of our sister countries.”

“We’ll pay particular attention to co-productions when the product is suitable,” he said, “You can’t take an all-American show like ‘Hunter’ and make it into a co-production.”

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