I’ve been asked to reflect on the eternal question that plagues all British telly loving Americans. Why doesn’t the US broadcast original UK programming on their networks? The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky all include American offerings on their networks so why don’t we Yanks follow suit?
Well, I’ve Googled that question to within an inch of its life and I have to conclude there is not one definitive reason. The entertainment business sites’ references to revenue streams and media platforms left my head spinning. However, as someone who has been wrangling with this dilemma for almost a decade now, I have formed opinions and developed some theories of my own.
First of all, let me clarify this a bit. We’re talking the Big Three (NBC, ABC and CBS) here for the most part, the traditional commercial broadcasters who have been around since the 1950’s. I’m also limiting this discussion to scripted comedies and dramas, not reality shows or informational programs.
No surprise, it all comes down to money. As I understand it, networks pay the studios (who actually make the shows) a license fee for the rights to broadcast their product on-air and possibly on-line as well. The amounts of these fees are not pocket money by any means. They can fall into the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode or more. Networks have to be pretty sure their investment will pay off. Their line-ups need to attract a substantial number of viewers which in turn attracts advertisers, the life’s blood of commercial TV.
So why may you ask are British shows a risky investment? If you are immersed in the world of UK telly as I am, it’s difficult to understand why original UK series would be such a gamble. Look at the success of Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Sherlock in America. It’s phenomenal so why wouldn’t we want more of the same?
Apparently we Anglophiles are a vocal but niche breed. I work in a public library and I see this first hand every day. For example, this past week I’ve had two interactions with people who wanted to order seasons of the comedy, Shameless. I make no assumptions and instead ask, American or British version? “Oh, American!” they reply. “I can’t understand the accents” or “I don’t get the humour.” Honestly, when I was putting on a 50th anniversary Doctor Who Trivia Tournament at the library and trying to explain the whole regeneration thing to a co-worker, she looked at the parade of Time Lords from one to eleven and said, “They’re not very good looking, are they?”
First of all, excuse me! David Tennant! But personal taste aside, for the most part my fellow countrymen and women aren’t all that interested in trying to decipher an unfamiliar dialect or work out British slang from context or resort to looking up UK pop culture mentions on-line. (Never mind, these are some of my favourite activities when I watch telly. I’m actually disappointed I don’t come across as many unknown references as I once did.) So why would TV network execs spend a fortune to cater to an enthusiastic minority?
The one well-meaning, but ill-conceived concession we receive from the networks is this trend of remaking notable British shows into mostly failed American versions. Decades ago this process had some solid successes with classic series such as Til Death Do Us Part (All in the Family), Steptoe and Son (Sanford and Son) and Man about the House (Three’s Company). In recent memory the only bona fide commercial TV remake of a British original has been The Office. Of course, American producers weren’t the only ones to jump on that bandwagon as there are at least a half dozen other countries who have made The Office their own.
We’ll see what happens with Fox’s Gracepoint this autumn. This remake of the phenomenal hit, Broadchurch, has the original series writer Chris Chibnall and leading actor David Tennant on board. I will attempt to contain my skepticism, but it’s difficult for me to justify why this remake was even necessary.
Premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime have fared a bit better in the remake department with shows such as Queer as Folk, Shameless and Getting On doing better than average – meaning not getting cancelled in the pilot stage or after only a few episodes have aired. These networks have more latitude when it comes to adult themes such as language, nudity and sexual situations so this may be a clue. Some British shows just translate better when not so strictly censored.
These networks have also provided a home for original series by British performers including Ricky Gervais (Extras and Life’s Too Short with HBO). I can’t fail to mention Showtime’s US/UK collaborative effort Episodes starring Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan as British TV writers who try to bring their BAFTA- winning sitcom to Hollywood and have to destroy it in the process just to get the series on American television. Very tongue in cheek indeed.
That’s not to say that British TV programming doesn’t flourish anywhere here in the States. The Public Broadcasting System has been bringing quality UK series into American homes for over four decades. In fact, I credit PBS with getting me addicted to telly. What were they thinking exposing young teenagers to Monty Python’s Flying Circus? These days America’s only publically supported network provides a treasure trove of wonderful shows from Call the Midwife and Last Tango in Halifax to Endeavour and Foyle’s War.
Each local affiliate sets their own schedule based on the generosity of their donors which determines the budget they have to work with. Some channels have more Brit heavy line-ups than others but I doubt many would pass on ratings’ champs like Downton Abbey. Particularly since Masterpiece Theatre actually funds many of the lavish British period dramas, essentially making them co-producers of these shows including Downton.
I’ll make a quick mention here of the cable network BBC America. I paid extra to add this channel and a range of others I didn’t want just so I could have access to the most current UK television programs. After a few years, the only reason I haven’t cancelled the subscription is so that I can watch Doctor Who episodes on the same day they air in Britain. Everyone I encounter in person and on-line has a huge problem with the repetitiveness and irrelevance of an overwhelming majority of BBC America’s scheduled programming. Kitchen Nightmares, Top Gear and Star Trek: The Next Generation are on air well over 50% of the time, but I’m not bitter… Peter Capaldi will make it all better.
Another place telly addicts like me are likely to turn is the streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. We pay $8 a month for access to all the TV and movies these services have in their vast catalog; however, I only bother watching the British ones. Hulu is the best source for comedies such as Moone Boy, The Wrong Mans, Miranda and Rev. among others. On the other hand, Netflix has negotiated the rights to series only a few months behind their UK premiere date s. Some of their more recent offerings have been The Fall, Southcliffe, Derek and coming very soon – Happy Valley! Other pay services include Acorn TV and Amazon Instant Video, but I find there’s quite a bit of overlap between providers and no reason to pay for all of them.
My final resort when seeking out older or more elusive series is good old YouTube. Bluestone 42, Phoenix Nights, Benidorm, dinnerladies, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Bob Servant Independent and Blackpool are just a sampling of the titles I’ve found on the world’s largest video sharing website. It may not be strictly legal, but until their rightful owners take them down, people like me will use it to satisfy their British TV cravings.
So that’s my inexpert analysis as to why Americans are denied the pleasure of watching British series on network TV. I’m not sure how relevant the traditional networks will actually be a few years down the road. Viewing methods and choices are expanding as I write. The squeaky wheels who want more UK offerings will be heard and before we know it TV will be as international as films have become. I don’t know if that’s a good outcome or not but it’s the way things are moving. All I want is to curl up in front of a screen and hear those slightly unfamiliar yet comforting accents calling a vacuum cleaner a Hoover.