Yanks winning format war

Overseas imports struggling on U.S. TVs

It was billed as the season of foreign formats.

Of the 12 new scripted series premiering this fall on the Big Four networks, only six were homegrown. Five were based on international formats, and the other, NBC's "Crusoe," was foreign-made.

But one month into the season, all of the rookie ratings standouts are U.S. born and bred, and the imports are struggling.

Four new series -- all created by American writers -- have been picked up for a full season so far: "Fringe" on Fox, "The Mentalist" at CBS and two spinoffs of old American series, the CW's "90210" and NBC's "Knight Rider."

Meanwhile, the freshman immigrants saw their first casualty with "The Ex List," CBS' dramedy based on an Israeli format, which was pulled this week.

Despite being given some of the best real estate on the broadcast networks, format-based rookies have been stumbling.

What was expected to be the battle of British imports "Eleventh Hour" and "Life on Mars" at 10 p.m. Thursdays has become the hour of the British also-rans, with the freshmen squandering their respective "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy" lead-ins to fall behind 15-year veteran "ER."

Similarly, CBS' British transplant "Worst Week," which landed behind TV's top comedy, "Two and a Half Men," has managed to hold on to just about 60% of its lead-in, prompting CBS to try out its U.S.-developed new comedy, "Gary Unmarried," in the time slot on Monday. "Gary" retained 76%.

After a promising start, NBC's "Kath & Kim" has faded on Thursday and already has been canceled in Australia, home of the original series.

That follows the quick demise of foreign-based dramas "Viva Laughlin" on CBS and "Wild at Heart" on the CW in fall 2007.

Network executives are cautious to draw conclusions about a possible end to the international formats fad.

"I don't think there is anything tainting the water of what comes from outside the border," one executive said. "It's all about execution."

And patience. As important as patience is for nurturing any new series, it is imperative for shows based on international formats that often introduce a different sensibility and style of storytelling that requires getting used to in a new country.

NBC's "The Office," based on the BBC series, faced cancellation after a dismal first season but found an audience and acclaim in its second year.

"Eleventh Hour" also seems to be slowly finding legs, while "Worst Week" and "Life on Mars" earned some of the best reviews for new series this fall.

Additionally, Canadian import "Flashpoint" did OK for CBS in the summer, when broadcast networks are less trigger happy, and is expected to return in midseason.

And on pay cable, where series get even more breathing room, rookie imports are doing fine: HBO's "In Treatment," based on the Israeli series, and Showtime's British acquisition "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" have earned second-season renewals.

Still, the shaky performance of scripted imports this fall is sure to give jitters to broadcast nets, which ordered more than a dozen pilots based on foreign formats during the strike-impacted 2007-08 development season.

Only one pilot ordered so far this development cycle, Fox's "Eva Green," is based on an international series, the Argentinean body-swapping telenovela "Lalola."

But the networks stocked up on a lot of formats during the summer that are in development, including U.S. versions of the British comedy "Absolutely Fabulous," Australian spy drama "The Informant" and Argentinean drama "The Pretenders" at Fox and the Argentinean sibling crime drama "Brothers & Detectives," the French family comedy "Don't Do This, Don't Do That" and British comedy "The Inbetweeners" at ABC.

The current hard economic times, which create viewer cravings for the familiar, also might prompt networks to go for more remakes of old series, such as "The Streets of San Francisco" and "Hawaii Five-O," both in the works at CBS, and "Melrose Place" at the CW.

"Hollywood is a pretty reactionary town, so maybe there will be fewer (pilots based on formats this year)," one network executive said. "But we are not cutting off and will continue to look beyond our borders for ideas."