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Table manners pay off for U.K.'s 'My Family'

A new milestone in international production and broadcasting history was reached Friday on the BBC when the award-winning sitcom "My Family" bowed for another season in a record-breaking run. The success of the comedy — seen in the U.S. on BBC America — is the result of an intriguing transatlantic business and creative venture.

The producers of the BBC series utilized a purely U.S. studio production method to make the very British series starring Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wanamaker. This has resulted in an astonishing 85 episodes now completed since 2000. That's the fastest production pace for a U.K. sitcome since the early 1960s.

When originally developed by producers DLT Entertainment, it was decided to employ a U.S.-style writers' table to enable more episodes to be produced.

DLT Entertainment maintains that not since the late '50s and '60s, when such shows as "The Army Game" "Bootsie and Snudge" and "The Dickie Henderson Show" ruled the U.K. airwaves, has a sitcom made it to more than 80 episodes so quickly.

Don Taffner Jr., executive producer of "Family" and vp of DLT, points to the fact that television in the U.K. is usually written by a single writer or, occasionally, a partnership of two writers. In the U.S., on the other hand, studio-made programming is created at the "writers' table," which involves an entire team of writers working together under the guidance of a showrunner.

Taffner realized that the British creative system was unable to produce sufficient quantities of episodes per season to make them economically viable in the global market. So he worked with U.S. writer-producer Fred Baron to make a new British series utilizing the more productive writers'-table system.

"We had an ongoing relationship with Fred and it was always our desire to bring the writers'-table system to the U.K. Fred had worked on 'A Fine Romance' (a hugely popular U.K. romantic comedy series) … and we had known him for years, so we talked to him about setting something up (in the U.K.) and Fred was game," Taffner recalls.

"We met with everybody — Channel 4, the BBC — and Fred pitched a couple of ideas. The BBC liked the whole idea, and we agreed to jointly develop and fund half the costs. That's how it took off," he adds. American writer-producer Tom Anderson is serving as executive producer-showrunner on the series.

That was back in 2000. Today, "Family" has not only hit a modern-day record for the number of episodes in the can, but also is becoming a major international franchise.

DLT has licensed the series to BBC America through 2010. In addition, the company has begun rolling out the series to PBS stations across the U.S., and DVDs of "Family" are being released in both the U.K. and the U.S.

The show has been licensed to more than 40 countries, including Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany, Israel, Spain, France, South Africa and Norway.

Probably even more interesting is that this British comedy about a middle-class family and its daily ups and downs is being sold successfully as a format around the world. RTL in Germany has piloted a local version, and a local version has just started broadcasting on RTP in Portugal. Talks are under way in five other territories to do local versions, Taffner confirms.