Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Musings on British versus American Television

I grew up in the United States in 1960s Indiana and Texas. The television I generally watched when I was a kid was thus American commercial television. It wasn't until the 1970s that I began to watch as many British television shows as I could. By the 1980s my limited television diet consisted mostly of British TV shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Danger UXB, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, To Serve Them All My Days, Private Schulz, The Citadel, The Irish R.M., the Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, A Very British Coup, the Yellow Wallpaper, and Morse.

Recently I began work on a paper on the British television shows Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. As a result I have been thinking a lot recently about the differences between the two and about why, as a general rule, I prefer British television to American television.

Though the histories of British television and American television are somewhat similar they are also somewhat different in interesting and telling ways. Both British and American television began before World War II but really didn't come into their own until after World War II had ended. Both British and American television were greatly impacted by radio and radio programming, vaudeville and the music hall, and the theatre.

One of the major differences between British and American television was the fact that television in the United Kingdom, like radio in the UK, was public radio until 1955 when the British commercial television channel ITV came on the air. The BBC, whose remit was not only to entertain the public but to educate it, had a monopoly on the British airwaves and as a result dominated British television up to and even beyond 1955. The BBC thus provided the template for British television with its public service programmes, its educational programmes, its children's programmes (like Dr. Who whose original mission was not only to entertain viewers but to teach them about history and science), its adaptations of literary classics, and its genre programmes. ITV, which was and is much more regulated than American commercial television and was thus required to air public service and educational programmes, generally followed in the footsteps of the BBC that had come before it.

Early television in the United States, on the other hand, was dominated by the same private corporations that dominated American radio, NBC and CBS. Public television was an afterthought which really didn't get going until Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society in the mid and late 1960s. It was Johnson who really created and funded American public television in 1967 when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

As a result American television is commercial television. It is a television dominated by big business and by the advertising of big business. Even the minutes and the years or seasons American television programmes run is determined by the commercial nature of American television. It is simply easier to generate more advertising revenue if popular television series have a significant run during each television season and run for multiple seasons. American television thus has long been obsessed with and dominated by notions of commodity aestheticism, the notion that the only good TV show is the most watched TV show because it can generate more advertising revenue.

This is not to say that American public television, PBS, hasn't had some successes in a television landscape dominated by commodity aestheticism. Upstairs Downstairs, An American Family, Tales of the City, Civil War, and Downton Abbey have brought viewers to public broadcasting. However, two things have and likely will continue to keep public television in the US down. Unlike the BBC, which is funded by a license fee, US public television was funded directly by the American government. Thus when politicians from Richard M. Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Jessie Helms didn't like something on PBS they could simply cut its funding. This has meant that PBS has been increasingly unable to make the number of fiction programmes it once did. Additionally, with the increasing deregulation of American television the little watched public service, documentary, and art programmes once a mandated part of American commercial television, have disappeared from the commercial networks and are largely found today only on PBS.

Another major difference between British and American television has to do with its entertainment and artistic influences. As I noted both British and American television were initially heavily influenced by radio programming, the music hall, and the theatre. By the late 1950s, however, American television had been taken over by the Hollywood film studios.

British television was, of course, impacted by the genre cinema but in a much less significant way than American television. The theatre, a prominent institution in UK artistic and acting life, had a much more long lasting impact on television in the UK than in the US. A programme like Upstairs Downstairs was, as Alfred Shaughnessy, Upstairs Downstairs story editor once said, televised theatre. As such it is actors TV. The show was rehearsed for several days before it was videotaped live on Fridays over a three hour period. Scenes last sometimes as long as ten minutes giving the actors space to act and the scenes space to breath.

American television, particularly when it was live and particularly when it was centred in New York, home of Broadway, the Actors Studio, and the Method, was impacted by the theatre on early as television series like Playhouse 90 and Studio One show. When television networks like film studios before them moved West to Los Angeles, however, the theatre's influence on American television declined while that of the Hollywood studios increased. With the Hollywood takeover of American television in the late 1950s American television has come to look like a poor man's version of Hollywood film. And as Hollywood became more and more geared to the youth demograhic in the wake of Jaws and Star Wars with its juvenile friendly genres, its ever briefer scenes, and its jump cut style, so has American television. The American TV show that perhaps best symbolises this transformation of American television is The Hills, a show whose target demographic is tweens and teens, whose scenes rarely last more than three minutes, and what dialogue there is isn't much longer than a few sentences.

British TV, including British public television has, particularly since the 1990s, increasingly come to look more and more like American television and Hollywood. A show like Downton Abbey, a remake in many ways of Upstairs Downstairs, symbolises the increasing Hollywoodification of British TV. Downton, like The Hills if not to the same extent, is characterised by scenes that rarely last over five minutes, lots of jump cuts, and limited dialogue.

I have never been a member of the cult of youth or the cult of jump cut editing built on the foundations of attention deficit disorder. I guess this is one reason why I much prefer Upstairs Downstairs with its more theatrical form and its more leisurely pace and British television in general to American television. I much prefer Outnumbered to Modern Family. I much prefer Spaced to Big Bang Theory. I much prefer Dr. Who to the Star Trek franchise. I much prefer The Worst Week of My Life to Suburgatory. I think Fawlty Towers was probably the greatest English language comedy ever made.

There are, of course, other reasons I prefer British television to American television. I love adaptations and British television, in my opinion, does adaptations far better than does US television. If you don't believe me watch the BBC adaptations of I Claudius, Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, and Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit, Channel 4's adaptation of White Teeth, or ITV's adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant. I love cynicism and satire and British TV does both far better than American commercial television. If you don't believe me watch Yes Minister, The Thick of It, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, House of Cards, or Spooks.

I am not arguing here, by the way, that American television is devoid of creativity and art. I loved Rockford Files, Buffy, and Firefly and American cable TV, particularly HBO, does, in my opinion, some great, if some sometimes overrated, stuff. It is worth remembering, however, that HBO, Showtime, and AMC, with their shorter television series (shorter is sometimes better as the tendency for American TV to flog dead TV horses shows) are more like the BBC and ITV than they are like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, American over the air commercial television.

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