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Netflix, Hulu look to U.K. for content

By Jake Coyle

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 27 2011 8:40 a.m. MDT

In this undated publicity image released by Hulu and Vuguru, Xander Berkeley is shown in a scene from "The Booth at the End." Hulu will exclusively premiere "The Booth at the End" in the U.S. on Hulu.com and the Hulu Plus subscription service beginning July 2011.

Hulu and Vuguru, Associated Press

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NEW YORK — You may have seen the original BBC version of "The Office," but have you seen the sketch show "A Bit of Fry & Laurie" with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry?

What about Steve Coogan's talk-show parody, "Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge"? Or how about the 2003 political thriller "State of Play"?

Catching these British shows in the U.S. used to mean hunting down sometimes hard to find DVDs. But in digital realms, divisions between American and British TV worlds are fast dissolving.

Netflix and Hulu have made international television more accessible than ever. Now, one's favorite "new" show is often phrased as a "discovery." And often, viewers' interests lead beyond borders.

Broadcast television, of course, offers many cable stations from abroad. But in the vast digital repositories of Hulu and Netflix, shows aren't segregated by country of origin. Instead, programs are discovered and rediscovered through word of mouth and recommendations from friends, often through social media or those sites' own recommendation engines.

American networks have long looked across the Atlantic for programming to copy — for example, franchised hits such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and attempted remakes such as "Coupling." Many shows also end up on BBC America or PBS, such as the recent, acclaimed upstairs-downstairs drama "Downtown Abbey."

But often, such hits as "Downtown Abbey" send viewers back to Netflix, where they scour for more top-notch British costume drama. Viewers need not wait for what often turns out to be dumbed-down, Americanized remakes, but can instead seek out the original series.

Hulu, which is owned by the parent companies of ABC, NBC and Fox, is attempting to make a splash this summer by streaming three British series not before seen in the U.S.

"Misfits," a Channel 4 comedy about community service-sentenced teenagers turned into superheroes by an electrical storm, premiered on Hulu last week. The Vuguru-produced Web series "The Booth at the End," a moralistic thriller about a man who grants wishes for a price, will premiere July 11. "Whites," a BBC comedy about a country house hotel chef, debuts July 20.

"We'd much rather find a show that a small to medium audience loves to death than a show that a broader audience might kind of like," says Andy Forssell, senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution for Hulu. "In an online, (video on demand) environment, there are some aspects of that environment that are much different than linear (TV) that steer you to those type of shows."

Forssell says the tools of a Web-streaming experience — such as social media — are conducive to seeking out what he calls "the secret band concept," where fans feel they've found something obscure and want to tell their friends about it. He calls it a "self-organizing audience."

"That leads us to content in a number of different areas, but one of them, interestingly, has been content from the U.K.," he says.

Hulu earlier noticed a surprisingly strong response to British shows such as the cult comedy "Spaced" by Simon Pegg, which ran from 1999 to 2001. Also popular on Hulu were the 2004-2006 hospital sitcom "Green Wing" and the 2003-2010 sitcom "Peep Show."

"They're shows that spread by word of mouth, spread virally online and they really just punched above what we thought their weight class was on Hulu," says Forssell. "It really led us to spend more time getting to know content producers in the U.K. and making sure we had the relationships to understand what might be opportunities ahead. That yielded 'Misfits' and 'Whites' and we'll go farther than that in the future."

Similar findings also led Netflix to look abroad.

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