Why We Love Those Mean Brits

Nothing Like a Tongue Lashing From Gordon and Simon

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Lately the TV airwaves have been chock-full of didactic Brits telling whimpering Americans how to sing, dance, cook, clean their houses and raise their kids. On the broadcast networks alone, Advertising Age counted 10 such no-nonsense personalities.
Potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay
Potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay Credit: Fox

Top of the list, of course, is the original "mean Brit," Simon Cowell, followed by Nigel Lythgoe ("So You Think You Can Dance?") and Piers Morgan ("America's Got Talent"). Then there's the three uniformed babysitters on Fox's "Nanny 911" and ABC's "SuperNanny." There's also Peter Jones, the straight-laced suit on the now-defunct "American Inventor" (also a Simon Cowell creation), and the potty-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay on "Hell's Kitchen."

Don't forget cable. Lifetime airs the filthy "How Clean Is Your House?" with Brits Kim and Aggie. Repeats of NBC's "The Weakest Link," starring chilly Anne Robinson, are now airing on cable network USA. Ms. Robinson, whose catchphrase was "You are the weakest link. Goodbye," was once voted the rudest woman on TV by readers of a British magazine.

Mean Brits are the secret sauce of TV ratings. To the industry's astonishment "American Idol" grew its 18- to 49-year-old audience 15% year-over-year, despite Mr. Cowell's comment that the producers might need a bigger stage for contestant Mandisa (he later apologized).

'Nasty Nigel'
Fox spun ratings magic with "So You Think You Can Dance?," the top show this summer among 18- to 49-year-olds. Mr. Lythgoe is known to British audiences as "Nasty Nigel" -- he appeared on the U.K. version of "American Idol" and is attached to the U.S. show as executive producer.

"Hell's Kitchen," a boot camp for aspiring chefs, is the No. 1 show in its Monday time slot. Mr. Ramsay, who helms the show, is a gold mine of ribald put-downs. Sample this: In response to a customer asking for more pumpkin in his risotto, Mr. Ramsay responds: "Right. Well, I'll get you more pumpkin and I'll ram it right up your f***ing ass. Would you like it whole or diced?" Fox just renewed "Hell's Kitchen" for a third outing.

NBC's "America's Got Talent" is the No. 1 original series airing this summer, averaging 11.3 million viewers. Mr. Morgan is the ruthless former editor of British tabloid The Daily Mirror." He exited the newspaper after it accidentally printed fake pictures of Iraqi prisoners being tortured. "America's Got Talent" comes from Mr. Cowell's production company Syco TV, and while Mr. Morgan started off as something of a Simon impersonator, he has lately been tempering his comments and has been more encouraging of the child talent.

Accent equals intelligence?
"American culture is still very [Angophilic]," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "When we hear the British accent spoken, we make the assumption that the person is smart. We also still have a good deal of cultural inferiority that we've felt over the last two centuries. We abandoned civilized society to come and wrestle bears."

Mr. Thompson also argues that the accent is a device that helps tough talk go down a little smoother. "It sounds mellifluous. If you had someone saying the same words as Simon Cowell [does] in a Brooklyn or a Chicago accent, it would be too much."

TV buyer Gary Carr, senior VP-director of broadcast at Targetcast, thinks the profusion of mean Brits across the dial has a simple explanation: "TV is a very copycat medium. This seems to be a formula."

Simon, it seems, has become a character type that must be replicated in just about every variety show.
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