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British Re-Invade as U.S. TVs Tune In for Sherlock Holmes

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British Invading Again as U.S. TVs Tune In for Sherlock Holmes
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the BBC TV show 'Sherlock'. Photographer: Colin Hutton/BBC/Hartswood Films/Everett Collection

In the 1960s, the British Invasion brought bowl haircuts and rock-n-roll to U.S. shores with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Fifty years on, a new assault is coming, led by iconic U.K. characters featured on TV shows.

Time Warner Inc.’s HBO, CBS Corp.’s Showtime, Netflix Inc. and Hulu LLC are among the cable networks and streaming sites commissioning, co-producing and buying rights to expensive new British dramas, meaning Americans will soon be watching U.K.- made shows with everyone from Dracula to Sherlock Holmes.

For decades, U.S. networks gave British shows the cold shoulder, remaking what they liked with American actors and scripts tweaked to fit local humor and sensibilities. “Three’s Company” was first “Man About The House” and Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” was once East Londoner Alf Garnett in “Till Death Us Do Part.” That’s changed. More and more U.K. programming pops up in original form on American small screens - - British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Sherlock” aired in the U.S. three months after its U.K. premier, according to

“I’ve never seen the American market so open to new ideas from elsewhere,” said John McVay, chief executive officer of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, a U.K. trade group. “There are lots of channels and content, and broadcasters must hunt things out that are really good.”

The U.S. accounts for a greater percentage of the British TV export market than ever -- up 50 percent since 2007 to make up almost half, or 475 million pounds ($764 million) last year, of all export revenue, according to PACT.

Riviera TV

As the world’s TV industry gathers along the French Riviera this week to buy, sell and screen programs, Brits are premiering a host of new shows, from British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc’s family drama “Moonfleet” and “The Tunnel,” a crime series made with France’s Canal Plus, to ITV Plc’s “Breathless,” a six-part drama following a group of London doctors and nurses.

“For the broadcast networks, the big ones, it’s become all about the shows that define them, and they spend a lot of money on shows that fulfill that,” said Cathy Payne, the head of worldwide distribution for Dutch production house Endemol NV.

The British new invasion was primed by exports like “Downton Abbey” and “Dr. Who,” an alien who time travels in a blue British police box, a once-common oversized phone-booth where cops could summon help from city streets.

The biggest U.K. broadcasters -- BBC as well as ITV and BSkyB -- are ramping up investment in original content to sell valuable international rights to the U.S. and other territories. Those deals can often translate to a third of all revenue for a production.

Tax Break

A U.K. tax break introduced in April is helping. The credit allows big-budget productions, where costs run 1 million pounds or more an episode, to recoup 25 percent of expenses. The incentive -- the subject of a seminar today at the Mipcom fair in Cannes -- is aimed at helping locals compete with Hollywood peers and keep TV projects made in Britain.

BSkyB, controlled by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has pledged to spend 600 million pounds a year on British productions by 2014, compared with 380 million pounds in 2011. The company bought a distribution arm for shows 18 months ago and renamed it Sky Vision.

“We decided that if we were going to aspire to the creative levels of HBO we needed to insure we could put the right amount of money on screen to deliver that,” Sophie Turner-Laing, BSkyB’s managing director of content, said in a phone interview.

‘Incredibly Open’

Turner-Laing said she doubts British TV will gain much traction with mainstream U.S. networks like ABC, NBC and Fox, which invest heavily in production calculated to bring in ad dollars. For them, airing a foreign show in prime time would be riskier than it would be for pay-TV channels that don’t rely on advertising.

“While the networks are incredibly open to ideas and pitches, whether they will go to a British, French or Aussie show in prime time is a big stretch,” Turner-Laing said.

The need for content has fueled a boom in co-productions. They rose 60 percent last year in Britain, with partnerships between Sky and Showtime, ITV and Masterpiece, and the BBC and Hulu, according to trade group PACT.

NBC will air its “Dracula” co-production with BSkyB starting Oct. 25, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Starz Entertainment LLC’s “Dancing on the Edge,” a venture with the BBC about London jazz bands in the 1930s, begins Oct. 19 after debuting in the U.K. om February.

‘Wrong Mans’

The BBC and Hulu will unveil “The Wrong Mans,” a comedy thriller about ordinary office workers caught up in a deadly criminal conspiracy, on Nov. 11. And “Doll and Em,” a BSkyB production featuring Emily Mortimer, was picked up by HBO, with a premier date pending.

“I think both sides of the Atlantic have learned from each other,” says Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “There’s a proliferation of indie producers in the U.K. that started to throw off some pretty sophisticated shows as the original programming market in U.S. began to expand.”

Starz has been airing the 10-episode British drama “The White Queen,” which is averaging 5.2 million viewers per episode. That’s “among the best” for the network, Albrecht said.

“People are tired of ‘X Factors’ and ‘Big Brothers,’” said Helen Jackson, the head of content at BBC Worldwide, the public broadcaster’s commercial arm. “Drama is reinventing that space with a more global approach, international talent and big universal stories to tell.”

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