How BBC America's shows inspire U.S. networks. It's not just ''Changing Rooms,'' the hit that spawned ''Trading Spaces,'' that's crossed the pond -- U.S. versions of other Brit hits are on the way

By Jessica Shaw
Updated January 17, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Graham Norton: Colin Bell/K2/CPI

Social anthropologists have long examined the chasm between American and British cultures. The crucial difference? It all comes down to porn and puppies — at least according to Graham Norton, the bawdy host of the popular British talk show ”So Graham Norton.” ”Over here, if you mention pornography that’s fine. But make a joke about dogs, everyone’s up in arms,” says Norton, who has been known to gift his celebrity guests with testicle brushes (happy grooming, Alan Cumming!) and pants with a built-in vibrator (you’ve got buzz, Carrie Fisher!). ”In America, it’s exactly the opposite. No one will touch pornography, but mauling dogs is perfectly acceptable.”

If Norton has his druthers, America will change its prudish, canine-cruel ways. Thanks to the cable-cool BBC America, English telly favorites like ”So Graham Norton” have become the most absolutely fabulous imports since the Mini. Currently in 33 million homes (with plans to reach 50 million over the next two to three years), the network is generating critical buzz for its inventive programming. ”If you’re an American flipping through hundreds of channels and you come across us,” Norton says, ”you’re probably thinking ‘hmmm, BBC America, that’ll be some nice Jane Austen piece.’ Then there’s me with a big dildo.”

Norton isn’t the only one getting Americans hot and bothered. The singleton sitcom ”Coupling” (known as ”the British ‘Friends,”’ though it’s hard to imagine a drunk Chandler in an oral sex mishap), the catty fashion fest ”What Not to Wear,” and the raunchy dramedy ”Manchild” (think ”Sex and the City” for men with midlife crises) all have developed cult followings. Beginning Jan. 23, the network will introduce ”The Office,” a hilarious ”Larry Sanders”-esque ”reality show” about the often uncomfortable goings-on at a paper company.

Even if you don’t get BBC America, chances are you’ll see some version of the current crop of Brit hits soon. NBC has snapped up ”Coupling,” CBS is developing the script for ”Manchild,” and Reveille is shopping ”The Office” to various networks. ”What we need to be is relevant, and the fact that heads of networks are watching us and cherry-picking what they like makes us relevant,” says BBC America CEO Paul Lee. Indeed, homegrown TV execs consider the Brit upstart ”a terrific test tube for American tastes,” says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. ”They’re far more willing to take chances with these programs than we are.”

In fact, Zucker’s only notes to ”Coupling” creators Sue Vertue and Steven Moffat (who’ll executive-produce the Chicago-set series) were to, as Moffat says, ”keep it as close to the original as possible.” Which means, according to Vertue, ”you might well be seeing a half-hour episode about erection failure soon.”

Whether the heady aspirations of U.S. programmers lead to large or limp ratings remains to be seen: For every ”Changing Rooms” (the Brit show that yielded TLC fave ”Trading Spaces”), there’s a ”Men Behaving Badly,” the debauched hit in the U.K. that became a mess on NBC. But for one man behaving badly, this cultural synergy is just the beginning. Though it’s hard to imagine a U.S. adaptation of ”So Graham Norton,” the host hopes his new popularity will carry him here. ”My ultimate goal is to work in America in any capacity, really,” Norton says. ”To tell you the truth, I’m quite happy to present ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.”’