Why British and American TV Are Worlds Apart… Part 1!

As a British TV Producer living and working in America for the last 5 years I’m often asked by people how British TV differs from it’s American cousin. Are they really so dissimilar? Which is better? And do I prefer working in the former of the latter?

Now this is a question with a very long answer – and a topic I’ll be coming back to again and again in the future (this is Part 1 remember!) Trust me, defining the differences between British drama, reality and comedy – to name just a few topics – is a very big discussion!

Today I’m going to kick off with what I see as one of the biggest differences. But before I offer my thoughts I’ll admit to a bit of bias going in…

There are a lot of things I love about British TV, but I have to be honest I have had and probably always will have a bit of a love affair with American TV. I grew up watching Dynasty in the 80’s, was hooked on 90210 and Melrose Place through my college years and in the noughties fell for the likes of 24, The West Wing and Will and Grace.  I’ve always loved the way American TV is promoted and glamorized – every new show launch is a big deal – and I love all the hoopla and theatrics. Coming to work in America has been the greatest career opportunity of my life.

Now that said there is lots of great stuff about British TV too – and I’m really glad that I got to spend 10 years working on that side of the industry. But I’ve always had a slight backlash about the way British TV believes itself to be the best in the world. Growing up in the 80’s, Brit TV always used to look down on its ‘foreign’ competition with a sniffy attitude that recalled the worst aspects of the British Empire. In the 80’s there was an old TV show called Tarrant on TV – where future Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host Chris Tarrant used to round up and mock TV clips from around the world. The attitude was ‘we’re better simply because we’re British’. But no one can really believe that anymore…

Which brings me to the first key difference I’d highlight between British and American TV – and one of the reasons I find British TV so frustrating nowadays? It’s the primetime soaps – and their continued dominance of key network slots, tabloid coverage and crucially programming budgets in the UK.

When I chat to my American friends they’re shocked when I tell them that the number one show in England, on a consistent basis, is Manchester set soap opera Coronation Street. And that’s it’s been the number one show in Britain since its launch 50 years ago (yep this year is the big 5-0 anniversary). The number two show? London soap opera, EastEnders. Number 3? Farming soap Emmerdale. Close behind – 24-year-old hospital drama Casualty and its spin off Holby City.

Now for me that’s depressing for a whole host of reasons. Firstly the shows themselves! EastEnders is a common whipping boy in the UK press for its depressing storylines (child abuse, rape, drug addiction, AIDS) but let’s be honest none of the bunch is exactly a laugh a minute. Coronation Street (or Corrie as it’s popularly known) has a definite lightness and humor but at its heart it’s a show about miserable poor people struggling to get by on a pretty grim Northern street. Casualty is like a less fun version of the Final Destination movies as people are impaled, scalded and hurt by household objects while actors who used to be famous in other shows man the hospital corridors and wonder where their careers went. And Emmerdale is just cold, wet and bleak. Having these shows dominating the schedules week in week out doesn’t exactly lift the national mood…

Then there’s the quality of the shows themselves. I grew up on EastEnders in the 80’s when it aired just twice a week – and was groundbreaking, brave and very well written and acted. Everyone in England remembers Den and Angie’s vicious divorce, Colin and Barry’s primetime gay kiss (1987, 7.30pm at night, on the nation’s biggest network – I’ll always love Brit TV for that alone) and 16-year-old Michelle’s pregnancy with the father of her best friend. And EastEnders stayed strong well into the 90’s with the arrival of the Jackson family led by matriarch Carol Jackson, married to a black man, with four kids from 4 different fathers. You’d never see a character like that portrayed heroically on US TV.

But EastEnders success led to a greater demand for more and more episodes – and for me – the show’s downfall. Now the show airs 4 nights a week, plus frequent specials and extended episodes, 52 weeks a year. You just can’t maintain quality at that sort of pace and though the show still has its moments, ratings have sunk and undoubtedly so has the quality. And where EastEnders went others followed suit – Corrie and Emmerdale now air five times a week, with Casualty and Holby City likewise taking up crucial primetime space.

Now all of these shows have legions of (mostly aging) fans – and if they love these series great! But in total these 5 shows are taking up a total of 9 hours of primetime TV each week on the two biggest networks. The result – there’s really just not a huge amount of room to launch new, surprising and crucially younger series. So year-to-year BBC One and ITV1 are gradually pushing themselves into extinction, as a whole generation of TV viewers checks out and stops watching TV, turning instead to the Internet, downloads and videogames.

When I lived in the UK the shows that myself and all my friends watched were American imports. We weren’t watching Brit shows but were instead opting for Friends, Dawson’s Creek, Frasier and 24. If we watched British TV at all – it was for the quirky comedies the smaller nets specialized in. Or reality shows likes Big Brother or Pop Idol (more on these two genres soon!). These big lumbering soap operas were uncool, trickily scheduled in early evening slots (DVR usage is much lower in the UK) and at the end of the day just too frequently scheduled for people under the age of 35 to consistently follow. They were the shows your parents watched. And their parents.

And at the end of the day, not be a snob here, but let’s remember these shows are soap operas. In the States soaps are strictly the province of daytime TV – and as most Brit viewers know – they’re always focused on super-rich families with insane storylines (demonic possession, killer twins) and pretty flimsy writing and acting. UK soaps are heads above these shows quality wise. But I still don’t believe they should be so dominant in the schedule – just as I don’t think any one genre – be it comedy, documentary or reality – should dominate any network.

All of the soaps are in a downward ratings spiral – EastEnders used to attract 15-20 million viewers a week (that’s almost a third of the UK population!) – now it’s lucky to crack the 8 million mark. And where the soaps go the rest of the network follows. And let’s not even get into the topic of advertisers. Britain is nowhere near as obsessed with the prized 18-49 demographic as America is – but maybe they should be. Because if you casually ignore today’s under 40 audience, simply in favor of total audience numbers, you’re not exactly building for the future…

So that’s the first key difference I’d identify between US and UK TV. What do you think Brit readers – agree with my analysis? Americans – would you watch soaps in a primetime slot on say ABC of Fox? And who’s a soap fan out there – and wants to argue their case? Would love to hear your thoughts…