There is a long tradition in storytelling of remakes, retellings, or in other ways copying someone else’s idea. Television is no exception. This fall season, two new British imports are on the way, Prime Suspect and The X Factor, and several of the most popular returning series originated across the pond as well. America has been remaking British television for decades, to varied success. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of its zip code, but the differences between British and American audiences can often make the process a difficult one. Dramas and reality programs have different sensibilities than in America, and British humor is particularly tricky to translate.
The TV model in the UK is considerably different than in the US. Seasons usually last at most 13 episodes, and some have fewer than 6. Series may have two seasons in a year, or two seasons in 10 years. There are a handful of broadcast networks as well as cable, but about half of the broadcast networks are financed through taxes, and because of this, many series have far lower budgets per episode than is standard stateside. Despite these differences however, American producers have achieved great success by looking to Britain for inspiration and this trend is unlikely to change.
Interestingly, very few dramas have made their way over, at least with much success. Comedic transplants are far more common and reality shows are abundant. Remakes of drama series don’t seem to take, with only a few series lasting more than one season and the earliest of these, Queer as Folk, premiering on Showtime in 2000. Comedies, in contrast, have been succeeding since the 1970s, when several of the most successful shows on television, creatively and popularly, were remakes. Three series in particular warrant note- All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Three’s Company. Each of these shows broke ground in different ways and strongly affected the television landscape. They touched on cultural issues facing the world at the time, the changing racial and sexual climates, and pushed the envelope, speaking directly to a distinct audience.
After the success of these series, however, only a few British remakes lasted more than a season. The Ropers was a remake, but was mostly successful as a spinoff of Three’s Company. Too Close for Comfort ran for five seasons in the 1980s, known mostly for its lead, Ted Knight rather than its premise (in fact, the series changed its name to The Ted Knight Show in its final season). Similarly, Cosby, which ran from 1996-2000, was driven much more by Bill Cosby’s presence than anything lifted from the original. The Office has become a huge hit for NBC, but only after shedding the tone and other elements most strongly tying it to the original. The shows that succeed tend to be those that use the basic premise or underlying motivation as a jumping off point and then rebuild the series around the strengths of the writers and actors.
Reality shows are another beast entirely. Many of the biggest American reality hits in the past 15 years have been British imports, some of which have become full blown reality institutions; series as diverse as Antiques Roadshow, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars. There are plenty of smaller reality hits from the UK as well- Trading Spaces, Undercover Boss, and What Not to Wear, to name a few. Some shows are huge in both countries, some are bigger there, and some are bigger here. Pop Idol, the predecessor to American Idol, only ran for two years in Britain before being replaced by The X Factor. The Weakest Link will have run for 12 years when it finishes up its current, and final, season, whereas its American counterpart only ran for two. It’s hard to know which reality series will succeed and to what extent. America loves reality TV, but can also be fickle in its tastes.
Another aspect of the conversation is the increasing prevalence of co-productions. Da Ali G Show came to HBO for its final two seasons. Little Britain popped up on HBO, not exactly as a continuation, but not quite as a remake either. British and American collaborations have become more common, with series such as Battlestar Galactica and, recently, Torchwood being co-financed and released in both countries. It’s common for American shows to be broadcast in the UK, but British series rarely air in the US. Barring PBS and BBC America, finding British programming in America is quite difficult, and even those tend to show mostly dramas and miniseries or TV movies. Considering how successfully British comedies are remade (at least compared to British dramas), one would expect more of a market for the originals, but that is apparently not the case.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. That seems to sum up the recipe for remake success. Either it works or it doesn’t- series tend to either squeak out a few episodes to a season or find their niche and run for years. When it works, producers of the remake find the kernel of interest or truth in the original and make it their own. When it doesn’t, it’s usually because they copied the form, dialog, or characters without understanding what made the series a success in the first place. The jury is out on The X Factor and Prime Suspect and it’ll take at least a year to know for sure. Given history, it’s far more likely for the former to succeed than the latter, but there is no sure thing in television. What is clear is that the UK has given American audiences several of its most culturally defining series and that British imports, for better or worse, aren’t going anywhere.
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Correction: I originally wrote that most British broadcast television was funded and run by an arm of the government. The BBC is separate and this mistake has been corrected.