August 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

This fall’s new TV lineup is a Brit-inspired affair

England is a lovely country, rich with history, tradition, and culture — but when it comes to television, the U.K. is strictly Third World. First off, they’ve got only five channels, and on a recent trip all I saw on the tube were tacky, amateurish soap operas, deathly dull documentaries, junk borrowed from American airwaves, like ”Jerry Springer,” and a hideously limey-fied version of Fox’s ”That ’70s Show.” That’s not to discount such British TV classics as ”Monty Python,” ”Fawlty Towers,” ”Upstairs, Downstairs,” etc. — but in truth, the only thing England is LESS known for than quality television is fine dining.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that American TV is now experiencing its own British invasion? Two weeks ago, English broadcasting groups Granada and the BBC created a new entity, GB Prods., to create American versions of U.K. series. NBC, meanwhile, is hoping to build on the success of its distaff hit ”Providence” by adding ”Cold Feet,” an Americanized take on a British relationship drama, to its Friday-night schedule this fall. (Although did the network really have to look overseas for the generic concept of three couples in various stages of their relationships?)

Now there’s ABC’s recent crown jewel, ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” — a hit British game show adapted for Yanks with exaggerated gusto thanks to host Regis Philbin — which is currently pulling in sizable summer audiences. The concept is super and simple: 10 finalists answer a random quiz question, and the winner gets to sit with Reege in the futuristic, circular set answering questions of both increasing difficulty and multiplying monetary value.

Although some of the queries are ridiculously easy (one recent contestant won $1,000 dollars by knowing the name of Barbra Streisand’s current hubby!), the tension and suspense levels remain high thanks to Philbin’s melodramatic pauses — ”Is that. Your final. Answer?” — and the harshly lit close-ups of squirmy, sweaty-browed contestants. When one of last week’s big winners, David from Raleigh, N.C., was agonizing over the name of ”a wicker basket used to carry freshly caught fish,” I found myself crossing my fingers, literally, for the poor guy. (Note: it’s a ”creel,” which David answered correctly, for $32,000.)

True, the show needs to hire a more on-the-ball team of researchers: The next night David gave the right response to ”Which of the Great Lakes is the second largest in area after Lake Superior?” (it’s Lake Huron), but Regis told him he was wrong — and thus out $64,000. Thankfully, ”Millionaire” producers acknowledged their mistake and will bring David back for the final episode this Sunday, which is doubly smart since it’s sure to boost ratings.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the success of ”Millionaire” spawns better Brit-to-U.S. conversions than we’ve seen in the past few years, like ”Payne,” CBS’ painful take on ”Fawlty Towers” starring John Larroquette, or ”Men Behaving Badly,” NBC’s absolutely disastrous Rob Schneider sitcom based on an English one of the same name. Because really, there’s no reason to import bad television — there’s already plenty of that made in the USA.

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