TV’s Special Relationship: Why We’re Sceptical About US/UK Co-Productions

By Ruth Margolis

Jul 12, 2011

Torchwood fans felt understandably cheated when news broke that Miracle Day, the fourth series of the British sci-fi drama--now a BBC Wales/BBC Worldwide/Starz production--would premiere in America a whole six days before it goes out over here (it starts on BBC One on Thursday, July 14 at 9pm). It’s not the first time our nations have combined forces--or finances--to bring us a great comedy or drama, but the pecking order has never been so transparent.

The reason for Torchwood’s British transmission lag? Money, naturally. Starz is covering a larger part of the bill, so its (paying) viewers get to watch first. But the show’s Brit creator, Russell T. Davies, has spoken out in defence of the funding model, revealing that the deal meant they had twice as much to spend on production. Indeed, the show’s more pragmatic followers might argue that a fourth series would never even have been commissioned if Starz hadn’t stepped in. For others, though, it’s a worrying evolution of a trend that began, albeit rather splendidly, with original co-productions like Rome and Extras.

Over the last decade, HBO and the BBC have forged a harmonious relationship and become the poster child for international co-productions. Their TV babies do come out pretty: a rosy blend of refined British creativity and Hollywood pomp and cash. And the pair, who mainly conjoin to make historical dramas, aren’t about to part company. Currently there’s an adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in production. Then there’s Parade’s End--a five-part mini series set during World War I starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

While HBO and the BBC seem happily married, the cable network isn’t big on monogamy. Following a £150 million deal last year that gave BSkyB exclusive UK rights to everything HBO, they’ve also decided to see if they can’t work together creatively. The 10-episode second series of Strike Back, based on the novels by ex-SAS soldier, Chris Ryan, will be the networks’ first joint venture. Season one was a mere six episodes, so even without watching we can tell that more money has been spent this time around.

Cash-strapped British producers’ desire to see their shows not only avoid cancellation, but get bigger budgets and reach new audiences, is motivation enough to take on rich partners. For channel bosses like BBC1’s Danny Cohen, who admits to being priced out of US acquisitions market, it’s a way to spend less and also keep UK viewers connected to the US.

But the benefits to viewers in the UK are less clear-cut. Soon, niggles over the transmission delay might be dwarfed by our feeling about the polluted end product. At least Torchwood fans are somewhat primed for Americanisation thanks to its US-accented star, John Barrowman. But when control over quintessentially British shows like Doctor Who and Being Human is handed in part to a non-native network (BBC America is now a production partner on both), then its inevitable that some of what we love about them will change. As it stands, it’s America’s hunger for British sci-fi that’s pushing the trend. But successful shows respond to their audience, and when that audience changes, so will the show. Slippage is scarily inevitable; how British viewers respond remains to be seen.

How do you feel about the rise in US/UK co-productions? Are you looking forward to Torchwood: Miracle Day?

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  • SharonCrawfor Jul 14, 2011

    I've seen ep 1, (yes I know, naughty of me), and I think it has lost everything that made it British. Even the humour is American. No spoilers but one of the biggest so called 'jokes' revolves around a geographical aspect of a part of the US which I didn't get and I don't think many other British people will either. It's CSI Torchwood.

  • lloydcodrington Jul 13, 2011

    As a UK Torchwood fan I was very sad to here of the new arrangements for the new series. Here in the UK we will see stories all over the place and people able to download the show will affect the UK ratings when it does get aired on the BBC and so therefore leave it at risk of being dropped. I can understand a company putting in money and saying they want to air it first but it is a UK show and UK license payers are just as entitled as those fee payers to the US company to see the show 1st. So why not just air on the same day both sides of the water. What is wrong with that? Why is it so hard to set up.

  • witchinsider Jul 12, 2011

    I think Episodes is a good example of successful partnership. Not only did the premise of the show lend itself really well to a US/UK co-production, but the episodes only aired a day apart in both countries so that no one was cheated. Best of both worlds, if you ask me!