Ellen Gray | Cowed by the Brits

Imports from across the pond rule U.S. airwaves

Posted: July 02, 2007

"I DON'T MEAN to be rude,

but . . ."

If "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell has said it once, he's said it a thousand times - he even used the disclaimer for the title of his autobiography.

But ask yourself: Why, exactly, are so many of us still listening?

Especially when what follows is, to be perfectly honest, so often very rude?

It was 231 years ago this week that a group of British colonists gathered in Philadelphia, and in language considered direct for its time, declared "that these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."

In the two centuries that followed, the citizens of those united former Colonies earned a reputation for plain speaking to the point of bluntness, as well as for a love of central heating and chilled libations, while the British continued to be known for their cold manners, colder houses and, of course, their warm beer.

Fast-forward to summer 2007.

On Fox, Scotsman chef Gordon Ramsay, who hails from a part of the world where oatmeal and suet boiled in a sheep's stomach has long been considered a delicacy, is putting the hell in "Hell's Kitchen" for a bunch of American would-be chefs, one (bleeped) F-bomb at a time.

On ABC's "Supernanny," British nanny Jo Frost can be seen teaching hapless American parents how to cope with everything from violent outbursts to bedtime. And while far less rude about it than Ramsay, she's pretty direct - and all too capable of cowing her subjects.

On ABC's "American Inventor," which is produced by "Idol" 's Cowell, the hanging judge is clearly British entrepreneur Peter Jones, who's also a producer.

On NBC's "America's Got Talent," which Cowell also produces, two of the three people judging "America" are Brits - Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne.

Yes, that Sharon Osbourne.

The British invasion's not just a summer thing.

ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," which is clearly modeled, like most "reality" TV competitions these days, after the phenomenally successful "American Idol," has its own Simon in the person of London native Len Goodman, whose caustic comments have been known to cut celebrity dancers off at the knees.

And though it would be easy to blame Simon for the Cowell-ization of American TV, he wasn't the first.

Before he arrived on our shores to explain, in an endless series of tortured similes, exactly how badly most of us sing, we briefly endured the icy - but to-the-point - put-downs of "Weakest Link" host Anne Robinson on NBC.

But if Cowell wasn't the first, he was the best, argues Fox's Mike Darnell.

Darnell's the network's executive vice president of alternative programming and specials, an umbrella that includes shows ranging from "Idol" and "Hell's Kitchen" to "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"

Cowell "sort of set the pace," and other copycat shows with "Idol"-like formats then felt the need for a British judge, he said.

"I do think there's something to the fact that he was accepted here quicker because of his accent, because it was [perceived as] coming from a more sophisticated place," said Darnell, whose own accent tends to betray his Northeast Philadelphia roots.

Even the British think their accents are classier than ours, he said, noting that when they try to imitate our accents, "when they're doing it for fun, it's done in a kind of jokey, hick way."

There's another reason, Darnell noted, that the explosion of unscripted programming has led so many British performers to cross the pond: experience.

"I can tell you the selection of hosts in this country is not great," he said. In England, "people have been doing these game shows for 20 years."

Indeed, as shows with "America" in the title and Brits on the jury have multiplied, the demand for insults and advice delivered with an accent has, too, which could be the reason that "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett (a former British commando and ex-nanny) turned to Australian actor Cameron Daddo to host his summer competition, "Pirate Master" (much to "American Inventor" judge - and pirate fanatic - Pat Croce's disappointment).

The TV Guide Network, too, is going the Australian route, signing on Fox Sports CEO David Hill, another Aussie, as a judge on "America's Next Producer," which premieres July 18.

Britain, meanwhile, appears to be undergoing a crisis of conscience about its transformation from being the land of stiff upper lips to that of stiff rejoinders.

Not to mention some pretty nasty language.

Earlier this month, a contestant on the United Kingdom's "Big Brother" was kicked out of the house "after allegedly using a racial slur," reported the Associated Press.

That followed close on the heels of a forced apology from Channel 4, the network that airs the show in Britain, "after regulators ruled the 'Celebrity Big Brother' program broke broadcasting rules by airing footage of racist insults being hurled at Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty," said the AP.

Last fall, the Sunday Times of London reported that "good manners" had topped a poll of things the British people regretted having lost.

And here we thought it was us they missed most.

Earlier this month, in an interview with London's Daily Telegraph, Louise Casey - described as "Tony Blair's 'respect czar' " - called for a return to common courtesy.

"It's important to help old ladies across the road," she told the Telegraph. "The greatest pleasure you can give yourself is to help somebody else.

"We need a greater sense that it's OK to be decent, you're not the nerd if you don't throw your rubbish on the floor - you're the person who's making Britain the country we all want to live in."

And, perhaps, leave for the occasional vacation.

In May, the Hindustan Times published the results of a survey of hotel operators that found that British tourists were among the worst in the world in such categories as "behavior, politeness, tidiness, noise, willingness to speak the language, spending and fashion sense."

Americans? We came in at second-best. Just behind the legendarily polite Japanese.

Wonder what Simon would say to that? *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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