Monday, February 4, 2013

Differences In British vs North American TV

I ran across this blog post over the past weekend, where someone from North America was in the UK and offering up what they had learned in their short period of time they've been there.  I got to point number five, which says this:
5) British free tv sucks *ss period. At least it is free rubbish!! :p
Naturally, I disagree. Rather than just offering up a counter-assertion that "it's not free" and "doesn't suck", I'll try to explain why.   

First, I'll quickly address the quantitative bit, then I'll move on to the main point of this article.  Put simply, TV in the UK is not free.  You must pay a license fee for each property that has a TV. The UK is patrolled by "TV Detector Vans", and you're fined heavily if you're watching a TV without a valid license.  Currently, a license costs £145.50 for a year, and failure to have one costs £1,000.  

So that puts that bit to bed.  Now on to the real point of this article.

The assertion that "British free TV sucks *ass period" is a bold statement - but I know where the author was coming from, because as a British person in North America, I find the same problem here but in reverse.

Having spent 14 years here, I think I also know why; and it's a cultural thing.

TV in North America seems to follow a cycle like this:

  • Find a new show format.
  • When you find one that works, cookie-cutter it.
  • After you've cookie-cuttered it, move it to a new location, throw in different actors, and apply the same cookie-cutter.
For instance, guess this show:
  1. A body is found by a dog-walker/rambler/playing kids/etc.
  2. The next 30 minutes is spent telling you how that person ended up there.
  3. 5 minutes is spent alluding to the lead male character's family problems at home.
  4. 5 minutes is spent alluding to the lead female character's torment in her job or private life.
Guessed yet?  That's CSI New York.  It's also CSI Miami.  It's also CSI Las Vegas.  It's also Criminal Minds.  ...And Criminal Minds:Suspect Behaviour.  And Hawaii Five-O.  And if you introduce a court room to the format, you have Law & Order. And Law & Order SVU. And Law & Order UK... and... do you get the point?  

This cookie-cutter approach isn't just an American thing, though.  The British do it too:  Take a bunch of everyday people living everyday lives and put them in London and you have Eastenders.  Put them in Liverpool and you Brookside.  Put them near Manchester and you have Coronation Street.   Both of these formats are found on the other sides of the Atlantic.  The predictable Procedural Policing dramas are in the UK, and even Coronation Street is broadcast in North America, believe it or not!  

But there's a problem; Eastenders or Brookside would bore the pants (trousers in English) off the average North American.  That type of program would only be broadcast in North America [and be accepted] if you add canned laughter to it and turned it into a sitcom.  

The same happens the other way - with the exception of Downton Abbey, there's hardly any drama here.  All "drama" here is actually "Police Procedural" in different disguises.  It's Castle.  The Mentalist.  Bones.  Elementary.  NCIS.  Fringe.  

And so the list goes on.  

If you took something that was really huge in North America, like "Friends" for instance, and removed the canned laughter and bad jokes, you're left with a bunch of people milling about between their apartment and the coffee shop.  That would give Coronation Street (a bunch of people milling about between their living rooms and the pub) a run for it's money any day. 

It's because of this drought in proper drama that everyone knows that as soon as they air "Mr Selfridge" over here, it'll be as big a hit as a bottle of beer in the desert.

Despite all this, though, it's hardly ever acknowledged where the largely compatible shows that we see in both the UK and America/Canada come from:  Reality TV and Game Shows.

The true heroes in this arena is concerned is the company "Endemol" from the Netherlands, who put out most of the "transatlantic spanning" content.  Whether it's game shows like Deal or No Deal, 1 vs 100, Fear Factor, etc, or shows like The Voice, Big Brother, etc.

There's a certain irony in that the shows we see most of in North America and the UK simultaneously, started in neither.