Office opens US doors for television writers

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SELLING British television programmes and formats to the Americans has never been easy, but for three Scottish independent production companies, the Golden Globes success of the UK cult comedy The Office has meant closed US doors are suddenly wide open - along with wallets.

The latest viewing figures for UK factual, comedy and drama programmes remade for the American market, including American Idol, Faking It and Wife Swap, have exceeded all expectations, and Ricky Gervais is not the only UK producer who will see his programme idea translated on to US screens.

The Scottish trio - Glasgow documentary firm Blackwatch, factual and children’s producers Caledonia Sterne and Wyld, and Aberdeen factual independent Tern Television - were part of a team of 11 UK production companies on a five-day fact-finding mission to the US last week to explore business opportunities.

All agreed that there has never been a better time to be British. Harry Bell, the creative director of Tern Television, responsible for Beechgrove Garden, Map Man, Songs of Praise and Eye to Eye, said he is confident they will win US business.

"We were told by the head of one of America’s top channels - TLC - that the channel is at the top because he’s made his career out of poaching ideas from British TV," said Mr Bell.

"He told us: ‘Guys, imitation is the sincerest form of television’, and explained it was the US version of Changing Rooms, /Trading Spaces, that had transformed his channel."

The market awareness trip was a pilot initiative organised by Channel 4, the Research Centre in Glasgow, and producers’ association PACT. The global television programme export market is worth over $4 billion and the UK currently takes a 17 per cent share of it - worth 666 million in 2002.

Carol Sinclair, the director of the Research Centre, said meetings were set up with key US television executives at broadcasters including Discovery, National Geographic, A&E and HBO, the makers of The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

"The purpose was to build relationships with key executives from the US broadcasters. UK indies need to know their target US broadcaster and that means knowing their schedules, their audiences, what programming is working and what isn’t."

She added: "All of the producers thought there was a significant opportunity for business in the US for them. The typical feedback was that they all got the distinct impression that the Americans were ready to do business with UK companies."

Paul Gallagher, the head of production at hard-hitting documentary firm Blackwatch, said the trip was inspirational and he was delighted HBO and National Geographic seemed interested in their back catalogue.

"There was interest in Designer Vaginas, which looks at cosmetic vaginal surgery, Bone Breakers, which looks at cosmetic height increase through leg lengthening, and our most recent production for Channel 4, Boys with Breasts, which examines gynecomastia, or male breast development," said Mr Gallagher.

The 11 companies also met Michael Caton-Jones, the Scottish film director of Memphis Belle and Rob Roy, who regaled them with stories of making movies into the small hours after dinner in Manhattan.

Ms Sinclair said the team gained market experience in one week that would have taken them a year to gain on their own.

Mr Bell said the only time all the executives from National Geographic wrote something down simultaneously was when he told them: "Tern TV is all about G spots - we do God, gardening and geography. Furthermore we believe that geography is the new history.

"They thought it was a good strategy putting God up front."

He added: "Discovery liked my pitch for a global geography survival series - we take my mate Bruce, who trained the SAS and Green Berets, we strip him naked and fly him by chopper to some of the world’s most inhospitable territories like Antarctica, the Sahara desert, or the Amazonian jungle, where we dump him with a huge bush knife between his teeth. Then he has to survive. It’s a reality reality show. It’s called Naked with a Knife."

Ms Sinclair said, interestingly, many of the producers commented on the fact that none of the US executives pulled out or cancelled meetings - a common occurrence in the UK.

One said: "The logistics of the visit were faultless and exceeded expectations. This can perhaps be measured against commissioning editors in the UK who habitually run late or cancel at short notice."

She said they will now concentrate on turning the business leads into a commercial reality.

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