LONDON – The Brits continue to bolster U.S. television with some better ideas.

NBC and ABC are vying to adapt the BBC reality series “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which celebrities explore their genealogy. NBC is Americanizing the BBC’s unscripted car-culture series, “Top Gear,” as well as the reality show “The Baby Borrowers,” where kids find out what it’s like to be parents.

David E. Kelley is making a pilot for ABC based on the hit British series “Life on Mars,” about a politically incorrect cop and the time-traveler who has to work with him.

The U.K.’s ITV channel is gearing up for a major presentation to the U.S. market, and many independent production companies in Britain are in talks to import their shows.

“If it works in the U.K., more than likely it will work here if we do our job right,” says Craig Plestis, head of NBC’s alternative programming, who nabbed “Top Gear.” “Very rarely has something been gangbusters over there that hasn’t really worked over here.”

So can an Americanized version of “Torchwood” be far behind? The quirky sci-fi hit, now in its second season on BBC America (Saturday, 9 p.m. EST), is the work of Welsh writer Russell T. Davies, whose “Queer as Folk” transposed successfully to Showtime.

Despite some failed adaptations – among them NBC’s version of “Coupling” and CBS’ “Viva Laughlin” – a formidable flow of hits has continued to stream across the pond, including British-born biggies such as Fox’s “American Idol,” NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Supernanny.”

And lest we forget, Norman Lear once turned the edgy BBC sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part” into “All in the Family,” changing the face of American television.

The U.S. demand for British imports has been accelerated recently by a combination of the Writers Guild of America strike and the shifting face of domestic television, which is moving away from rigid scheduling and expensive scripted series.

BBC America has been a prime showcase in the U.S. for British shows in their original format, such as “Top Gear,” which begins a new season on Feb. 25 (8 p.m. EST), or the innovative sketch comedy “That Mitchell and Webb Look” (Friday, 9 p.m. EST).

Los Angeles-based BBC Worldwide Productions then sells these programming formats for adaptation by networks or other cable channels – shows like “Top Gear,” for instance.

“It was just a no-brainer for us to do this,” says Plestis of the “Top Gear” adaptation deal.

He now has the task of finding suitable American hosts for the show, headlined in Britain by the outrageously outspoken Jeremy Clarkson and his road-hog sidekicks, James May and Richard Hammond.

“The first week we put it on the air, the median age of the show was 27 years old and predominantly male, which is extremely rare for any show on American television, let alone on BBC America,” says BBCA President Garth Ancier.

“The thing that is most fun for us as Americans is looking at the creativity coming out of the British market and saying, “What can we do with all these wonderful toys?”‘ Ancier added.

“The market here is so much bigger even for very niche content,” says British-born Patrick Younge, president of the Travel Channel, where present imports include “Michael Palin’s New Europe” (Monday, 8 p.m. EST).

“We are a niche channel but we are in 91 million homes, bigger than BBC One, so even the very, very niche networks have a massive footprint,” Younge continues, “so there’s lots of room for all of this content, provided you get the price right.”

Scripted material is trickier to import than reality programming, especially if thick with regional accents and atmosphere, although PBS has a successful tradition of airing British costume dramas and mysteries.

Showtime faced the question of whether or not to Americanize when it recently bought ITV’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” starring tabloid favorite Billie Piper.

“It’s one of those unique things. We initially looked at it and thought maybe we should buy the format rights and recast it and make it American,” says Robert Greenblatt, Showtime’s president of entertainment, who believes American audiences can be fairly “xenophobic.”

But he decided the original was fantastic and he was unlikely to find someone as engaging as Piper if he recast it. Besides, he says, “It’s very hard to find American actresses who are comfortable doing nudity.”


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