From Tube to Telly, the Exchange Is Pop Culture
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.”
But while Britain looks to America to make money, America regards Britain’s more relaxed TV formats as a chance for creative growth. In the case of “That ‘70s Show,” Carsey-Werner expects only to break even on its British venture, making it solely for the undisclosed license fee ITV has paid for broadcast rights--possible because British actors and other TV industry employees are paid significantly less than their American counterparts. Carsey-Werner will profit by syndicating the U.S. version everywhere except in the U.K.
“We’re doing this project because we thought it would be fun, because we can, and because we’ll get to know more about the British culture,” says Carsey-Werner President Caryn Mandabach, who frequently travels to the U.K. in search of fresh talent. But why attempt this with a new program? When Mandabach raised the idea, “That ‘70s Show” wasn’t even on the air.
“A show that’s tried and true in the States doesn’t mean the concept can travel culturally,” she says, adding that “That ‘70s Show” can, because it focuses on a universal experience--adolescence. “Teenagers are like dogs. They come in different breeds, but basically, they’re the same animal,” Mandabach says. “Whether it’s Yugoslavia or Morocco, teenagers are the same. It’s the time of life when they separate from their parents and become individuals.”
In fact, Mandabach hoped to attempt a British production with
another Carsey-Werner show she also felt had cultural legs, NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun.” But that was syndicated to the BBC before talks with ITV got serious. Then, in September 1997, their negotiations turned to “That ‘70s Show.” When the deal was completed last spring, Carsey-Werner hired British TV producer John Bartlett, director Bob Spiers, and writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong to adapt and re-shoot the scripts.
“It’s translated to Britain I think quite easily,” says Spiers, who also directed “Absolutely Fabulous” and “Fawlty Towers.” “But it’s still an American structure and American story, so it feels a bit odd and original, which is a good thing, because it’s fresh.
“We don’t slavishly copy the American scripts, but obviously, I’m not that proud,” he says, grinning sheepishly. “If I see a good joke, I’m going to steal it.”
Experimenting With British-U.S. Hybrids
For ITV, the deal is a clever business move. ITV’s director of programs, David Liddiment, hopes a longer-running series will help beef up the network’s comedy programming and target a slightly younger and more up-market audience than it normally draws. Rather than the typical six episodes a year, ITV will air an initial 13, with an option to buy all 22 of this season’s scripts. Such strategy is particularly important in Britain, which converted to digital television and a potential 200-plus channels last year, and now has to contend with the same audience fragmentation as America.
“As a commercial network in a multichannel world, it becomes more and more difficult to establish a comedy with only six episodes,” says Liddiment. “You need to run it and let it build a relationship with an audience in order to really establish itself, so people really get to know the characters and see why it’s a funny show.
“There has been a problem across U.K. television in finding straightforward television comedies that play in family viewing time and get big numbers,” he adds. “American comedies tend not to play in peak time on the big networks here. They’re played only on Channel 4 or BBC2, where they can sustain a smaller audience. Most American comedies on British television get about a 15% share. We will be looking for a share certainly in excess of 30% of the viewing audience at that time.”
If it works, Britain could start seeing more sitcom hybrids combining British sensibility with an American-style structure and pacing that are shot primarily on a stage set instead of at various locations. But sustaining them over longer runs may be tougher. That demands larger writing staffs, which require a lot more money than British networks will spend for series.
“The Americans are much better generally in the sitcom format,” says Trevor Cooper, who plays Ron Forman, one of the parents on the show. “The golden age of British sitcoms has sort of gone and the critics are waiting to throw rocks at a lot of the new sitcoms, so most of them only last a season. A few long-running ones have finished recently, like ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ [which also aired briefly on Comedy Central], so they need some new ones. A lot of the problem is the writing. The American system, where you get a lot of writers working on a sitcom, we don’t do over here yet.”
Most British series use one or two writers, a situation driven as much by culture as it is by finances. “The British don’t quite have that team mentality when it comes to writing,” says Spiers. “They’re more solitary. When we try team writing, we tend to find that the quality is not that great, mainly because we don’t have the budgets that you guys have over there. So when Carsey-Werner employ a team of writers, they are employing very good writers and are paying them quite a lot of money.”
‘Actors in the States Are More Pampered’
But at this point, money issues go beyond the writing staff. Compared to Hollywood, Britain’s TV industry as a whole is relatively low-frills. Carsey-Werner’s Mandabach was stunned to learn that the British actors rehearsed off the set in a building with no heat, and had to wear mittens and hats while running their scenes. Their craft services spread consisted of hot water, tea bags and a tin of cookies.
“Actors in the States are more pampered,” she says. “In Britain, if the actors blew a line or realized they hadn’t done exactly what the director wanted, they took it as seriously as if a cameraman had missed a shot--they behaved as if they were part of a technical crew.”
Even on the evening of this particular taping, only a handful of executives mill about the studio floor and herringbone tweed replaces Armani. This episode, called “Equal Rites,” is the one in which a girl inadvertently emasculates her male friend by consistently beating him at games. Afterward, the cast and crew head to a show party in a smoky bar in another part of the Teddington Studio complex for a smoke and a pint.