Brits Who Cracked America (pt 2)

In the final part of our loose round-up of the BAFTA New York ‘Brits Who Cracked America’ event, we find out which British traits have helped Simon Andreae (EVP Alternative Entertainment, Fox TV), Frances Berwick (President, Oxygen and Bravo) and Michael Davies (President, Embassy Row) to thrive in the USA, which American traits they’ve adopted and how the British and American program markets differ.

Being British in the USA has advantages extending beyond the accent. But before delving into the detail Michael Davies noted that the image sold to Americans of the Brits is nothing more than clever marketing.

“ …The difference between Britain and America is that America always gets marketed by its mass, and Britain gets marketed by its elite. You and I know that if you go on an average night out to any English town you’re going to get assaulted by chavs the minute you get in the pub. Britain is not a land of cucumber sandwiches and Pimms drinking sophistication …”

Britain. The Land of Cucumber Sandwiches ... Or Is It?

When it comes to program viewers, ratings support the fact that our American friends were actually more sophisticated than the Brits according to Davies:

“If you look at the top 20 shows on American television 15 years ago, it would be 60 Minutes [UK equivalent would be Panorama or Tonight}, it would be the highest quality drama, highest comedy shows would be the top of the ratings week after week after week. But when you looked at British television, it would be the most populist shows that would be there … In America the market actually managed to sift out and get to the highest quality”.

… On the British experiences and values that have made them successful in the USA.

The two key British factors mentioned as providing advantage in the USA were education and training. Michael Davies (who was both publicly and privately educated), believes a British education gave him a phenomenal advantage – especially in terms of enrichment through meeting people from different backgrounds.

Michael Davies:

“…Simon and I are from very different backgrounds and I think that made us close because we had such a different experience…. Simon was the first truly brilliant person who I met in my life … To some extent that is what I took from Britain. The opportunity to be around brilliance and learn how to channel that …”

Regarding training, the BBC still has a remit to train the industry as a whole. But outside of the formal schemes earning your stripes on-the-job was seen as a huge advantage, one which probably explains the demand for British Producers in the USA.

Simon Andreae:

“… On the unscripted side the market is deeper and more mature in the UK. I was a runner and a researcher and an assistant producer [before becoming a Producer]. We hire quite a lot of Show Runners, even for the big entertainment shows here. Those people from the UK do have a deeper …”

… On the Americanisms which they’ve adopted in order to do well in the USA.

This question drew the most amount of contradiction from the panel. Berwick believes she hasn’t adopted any US traits, Davies said that she has (as Berwick is known as being direct), but Andreae said that US Execs are actually indirect!

Michael Davies:

 “… I would suggest a quality that is very American, Frances is very direct and Frances tells you. You always know where you stand in a conversation … I think it’s a quality that you have that is very friendly to your job as an American Executive …”

Simon Andreae:

“… There’s a most extra-ordinarily skilled level of indirection that network executives have here. You have a meeting, and in come a whole bunch of people to pitch something and you sort of nod and smile and ask a few questions. And then they ask you what you think, and you sort of say you think it’s interesting in a variety of ways, and that you’ll get back to them quickly. Then they all shuffle out of the room and the agent tries to stay behind to gather what you really thought. And then you perfectly well know that you’re going to pass. But you wait 36 hours because you’ve said ‘please can you send me the materials’ so you don’t want to pass before they’ve sent then … Take a leaf out of Frances’ book and be as direct as you can be without being insulting and crushing somebody’s dreams …”

Michael and Frances both commented on the jaded cynical British outlook and Michael’s believes his success in the USA is due in part to taking the opposite approach:

“… My nickname for a while was Mike Positive Davies, because I was always so positive … I found it easier to be my positive optimistic self here than I’ve found looking at the prospect of working in Britain. That sort of ‘control your expectations’ comedy routine of ‘you want to be an astronaut you’ll end up as a janitor’. I found the freedom of being positive and believing in yourself, it sounds trite, it sounds basic, but it worked for me…”

… On the differences between US and UK programs.

The key difference between the UK and US market is that British programs are mandated to be innovative and American programs are mandated to be commercially successful.

Frances Berwick:

“… It’s commerce led [in the USA]. The interesting thing about some of the shows in the UK are there are some weird oddities like Sheep Dog Trials …”

Simon Andreae:

“… When something catches you have a piece of property that you can exploit in a Walmart fashion here, rather than in the Paul Smith patter back at home … Programs are the things that fill in the space between commercials … Its only job is to suck in a certain demographic at a certain time of night and not to release the grip until you go off-air. That’s the only task …”

The commercial imperative has created opportunities for British Producers, who (unlike in the US) retain ownership of their programs. It has paved the way for British Producers to export their programs overseas. (American buyers spent $800 million on British TV shows in 2012).

Michael Davies:

“…You didn’t make money as a Producer in the UK, the only way you make money was by selling those format overseas and exploiting that IP. And that commercial imperative suddenly made Britain, which had not exported much television, suddenly this wave of creativity happened across the British independent sector and they started creating world beating formats that travelled everywhere in the world…”

‘Brits Who Cracked America’ was held at the Crosby Street Hotel on May 13, 2014. The event was hosted by BAFTA New York. Watch the full event here.

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