By Published on .

The U.S. TV industry is declaring dependence on its British counterpart.

ABC's "Wife Swap," a reworking of a highly successful British docu-soap, was one of the hottest upfront properties. Hot enough that Fox announced a copycat version, "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy." Now Stephen Lambert, the British producer of "Wife Swap," is on a roll to become the next Mark Burnett, as he creates a raft of shows for the American market.

Mr. Lambert is at the head of a movement that seems to be gathering steam. Andrea Wong, ABC's exec VP-alternative series, specials and late-night programming, admits to regularly shopping for programming in London, and explains why it's happening. "They've been doing alternative types of programming a lot longer than we have, because of the economics of TV over there. You have to be more creative with a lot less," she said.

Mr. Lambert's company, RDF Media, London, has recreated the Brit hits "Junkyard Wars" (formerly "Scrapheap Challenge") and "Faking It" for Discovery Communications' TLC channel; "Perfect Match" for ABC Family; "Fake Out" for Court TV; and "The I Do Diaries" for Lifetime. It is developing "I Hate My Job" for Spike TV, and is working on an undisclosed one-off special for NBC. "Banzai," a parody of Japanese game shows in which viewers participate online, appeared on Fox last summer and moved to Comedy Central for a few episodes.

RDF, while the most prolific, is not the only player. Other shows coming stateside include Oxygen's "Nighty Night," a black comedy about a wife who joins a dating service when her husband is diagnosed with cancer; Comedy Central's debut of British game show "Distraction" in November; and a U.S. version of "The Hollow Men," a British sketch comedy troupe next year.

Viacom's Comedy Central has a jump-start on the Blighty new wave: It began airing "The Graham Norton Effect" in June, starring a popular U.K. talk-show host. Mr. Norton's first night in the U.S., June 24, drew 1.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. He has his own take on why Brit hits such as his are coming here. "In American television, people are so desperate for guarantees," he said. "If they can buy something that's been a hit somewhere else, they believe that will have a better chance than starting something from scratch."

He added: "In Britain you can take more risks. There isn't a panic mentality. If the first show doesn't exactly find the right demographic, they don't cancel it. ... They give you a chance to get it wrong and fix it."

getting together on `swap'

Mr. Lambert and ABC collaborated on a U.S. version of "Wife Swap," an award-winning British reality series that will be RDF's first shot at broadcast TV.

"Nothing like this has been done on a broadcast network in the U.S., where you really are in the intimate heart of the American family," Mr. Lambert said. "If you look at all the sitcoms, nearly all of them are set in the American family. But no one has done the same thing using reality skills."

A clip of the show was greeted with gales of laughter at ABC's May upfront presentation to advertising buyers in New York, and many there predicted it will be the hit that pulls the ailing, fourth-place broadcaster out of its long-running slump. Some are even saying, "Wife Swap" could be as big as "The Apprentice" was for NBC.

"There's a lot of human interest there," said Shari Ann Brill, VP-director of programming. "The show might even trigger culture shock, with upper-class families swapping with lower-class families."

"Wife Swap" inspired Fox to sneak into the henhouse and steal the idea; its "Trading Spouses" is scheduled to make its debut before the end of the summer. And now, even before "Wife Swap" airs, ABC is commissioning spinoffs from RDF, which is producing pilots of two more of their U.K. successes: "Boss Swap" and "Husband Swap."

In each episode of "Wife Swap," two women switch homes for two weeks. In the first week, they must follow the house rules of their new home, however strange to them. In the second, the house must follow their rules. The U.S. pilot, now making the rounds of advertising agencies, features blue-collar Lynn Bradley, who lives in the backwoods of New Jersey, drives a bus in the morning, chops wood in the afternoon and cleans and cooks at night. She swaps with Park Avenue socialite Jody Polansky, who hasn't worked a day in her life, spends $4,000 a week on clothes, and has four nannies for her three children.

RDF has already shot seven episodes of the U.S. version of "Wife Swap," and ABC has ordered 13 more. The show will premiere Sept. 29, and air Wednesdays with a lead in from ABC's anchor "The Bachelor" and opposite heavy-hitters "CSI: New York" on CBS and "Law and Order" on NBC.

"We think those shows skew a little older and are darker and violent," said Geri Wang, senior VP-prime time sales, ABC, of the competition. "It's smart counter-programming. "

Ms. Wang said ABC is in negotiation with two large advertisers who want to work out a sponsorship of the show. "So far, the sellout is high in the show," Ms. Wang said. Although the network doesn't plan on integrating product placement in "Wife Swap," it also won't discourage it. "We don't want to just insert something," Ms. Wang said. "We are not going to put a mop into a wife's hand, but if she wanted to bring it with her, fine."

looking to grow

RDF Media is one of the busiest independent TV-production companies in the U.K. CEO David Frank and Mr. Lambert are executive shareholders; they are co-funded by a silent venture-capital partner, and are shopping around for more backing that will help them expand operations. "We will be able to sell the American episodes of `Wife Swap' around the world, and even back into the States if we make enough of them," Mr. Lambert said. "What has been very successful for us is making American versions of shows that we made first of all in Britain and then selling those U.S. shows back to the original U.K. broadcaster."

Another hot British import is "The Office." NBC has acquired the BBC show, a Golden Globe winner, created by actor Ricky Gervais and writer Stephen Merchant, and is producing a U.S. version, subtitled "An American Workplace." Reveille Productions, the Hollywood outfit producing the show here, has shot a pilot.

midseason `office'

The show is not on NBC's fall schedule, but according to Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, it will make its debut sometime after NBC's fall premiere week (which this year is the last week of August, following the Olympics), most likely as a midseason replacement.

NBC already failed in its attempt to create a U.S. version of another BBC show here, "Coupling." "Obviously, `Coupling' didn't work out, but this is an entirely different situation," said Mr. Zucker, who attributed much of the difference to Greg Daniels, who writes the Fox animated show "King of the Hill," and who has been churning out "The Office" scripts. "He's done a terrific job of keeping the tone of the original series. I'm not sure we were ever able to capture that in `Coupling."'

The new wave of British programming here has benefited Discovery's BBC America, which imports U.K. originals from BBC and other networks, but there has been a downside. "To some extent, we are becoming a victim of our own success. There's lots of competition for the programming," said David Bernath, VP-programming. "We wanted to buy `Wife Swap,' but we couldn't because ... ABC is making it. But this just means British TV, ideas, stars are working here, and its good for us on balance."

Most Popular
In this article: