How 'Mad Men' Launched TV's Global Makeover

Illustration: Chip Wass

The burst of small cable success in the U.S. has created demand for cheaper, quality fare as domestic-made TV, once the dominant powerhouse, goes toe-to toe with international rivals for airtime on America's own shores.

Maybe you've noticed: There are a lot more accents on American TV these days. Whether it's Maggie Smith's British lilt on Downton Abbey, the Canuckian "eh?" from the cops on CBS' Flashpoint or the gutteral dialect mashup that is HBO's Game of Thrones, there are foreign sounds across the dial.

Back in the day, you could be certain that nearly 100 percent of domestic TV was made in the USA. Now, like the sleeper agents on Homeland, foreign-made shows have infiltrated the system.

There are the obvious candidates: Showtime's The Tudors and The Borgias; Starz's Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End, airing on ReelzChannel; Lilyhammer, the quirky crime comedy made in Norway (on Netflix in the U.S.) whose only American element is the New Jersey accent of its star, Sopranos almunus Steven Van Zandt.

The foreigners are among us. And more are coming.

A look at the lineup at MIPCOM, the international television market that kicks off in Cannes Oct. 8, reveals how polyglot the TV world has become. American-made studio shows have reigned supreme at MIPCOM for a decade or more. But this year, the buzziest shows include ones from Britain (Da Vinci's Demons, an eight-part fantasy series that BBC Worldwide is producing for Starz), France (Gaumont's Barbarella, a small-screen take on the iconic sci-fi vixen, directed by Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn), Germany (Tandem Communication's Euro-set crime series Crossing Lines) and New Zealand (the mystery thriller Top of the Lake, from Oscar winner Jane Campion).

"The world is changing, it is now possible to do a show in Europe and sell it back to the States," says veteran U.S. producer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), whose new show, Hunted, was produced in Europe by BBC for broadcast on BBC One but also will air on Cinemax this fall. "Just a few years ago, that would have been inconceivable."

What's changed? In a word: AMC. When the American Movie Classics channel pushed into original content back in 2007 with Mad Men, it set off a chain reaction among smaller U.S. channels. Suddenly everyone from Syfy to TNT had to have their own high-end drama series. Smaller channels that already had been commissioning drama -- FX and USA Networks, then second-tier pay-TV players such as Starz -- started ordering a whole lot more.

But these new buyers didn't have the deep pockets of an HBO or a Big Four network. They could pay around $300,000 for an hour of drama, not the $1 million-plus of a bigger channel.

That's where the foreigners came in: producers in Toronto, London or Munich who could tap national subsidies and regional tax schemes to reduce their programming costs, and who make up for a smaller American license fee by preselling their shows to international buyers.

Call it The Tudors model. Michael Hirst's period melodrama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII was set up as an Irish-Canadian-U.S. co-production and financed with a mix of tax incentives, subsidies and foreign presales. It's a game plan Hirst repeated with the Starz fantasy series Camelot and with the upcoming Vikings, which the British costume drama specialist is currently shooting for the History Channel in the U.S. and Shaw Media in Canada, and which MGM is selling worldwide at MIPCOM. Most of the big internationally-made series -- from Tom Fontana's police period drama Copper to big-budget actioner Transporter -- use the same basic financial structure: get two or more international broadcasters on board, hire a top U.S. (or U.K.) writer to pen the script and shoot in tax-friendly Canada or Europe. The model works but, as Maria Kyriacou, managing director at British production/sales giant ITV Studios Global Entertainment, points out, producers still have to find projects that will work, creatively, on both sides of the Atlantic.

"That is the challenge. There are few shows that will work from that point of view from the get-go," says Kyriacou.

When a foreign show is too, well, foreign for a U.S. audience but has a proven track record, American broadcasters are increasingly turning to adaptation: tweaking a British (Shameless), Israeli (Homeland) or Danish (The Killing) series to appeal to an audience stateside.

"It's impressive what some of these smaller territories are coming up with on the drama front," says Michael Lombardo, HBO president of programming. "However," he cautions, "it's not just any format that will travel: The challenge is to find the right writers and a fresh point of view."

Fox TV Studios president David Madden says that his unit is sifting through "half a dozen" fictional series from abroad for possible re-versioning. Similarly, his colleague at cabler FX, Eric Schrier, who is head of series development, is gung-ho about adapting the Danish thriller The Bridge into an American series set on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Bridge, Schrier says, is indicative of some of the edgy, off-kilter drama coming out of Europe at the moment. "TV viewing is more a global experience nowadays," he points out.

Or, to put it another way: American viewers better get used to those foreign accents. The international television invasion has only just begun.

Stuart Kemp in London and Etan Vlessing in Toronto contributed to this report.