A British invasion of American TV

Stephen Beard Aug 25, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Emmy Awards will be announced Sunday night. And if you watch closely you might notice something of a transatlantic trend. More and more of the shows Americans like were originally made in the UK. In the oh-so-profitable reality category, three of the five nominees came from over there. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports on how British and American TV have been trading places.

STEPHEN BEARD: Once upon a time Britain sent a small wave of classy, highbrow TV shows across the Pond. From the land of Shakespeare and Dickens it came — period drama, thoughtful documentaries, uplifting programs about art and civilization.Now American TV is awash with shamelessly down-market fare of British origin, like “American Idol,” based on a British format and featuring that nasty Brit Simon Cowell. Or shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Boiling Point” in which an uncouth, bullying chef publicly humiliates his staff.

This tidal wave of British trash, originated in the 90s. British TV became much more competitive then. Satellite television here was blossoming. The mainstream broadcasters opened more of their programming to small, independent producers who were looking for bigger and faster profits. Trashy TV sells. An export boom was born, says Phil Wickham of the British Film Institute.

PHIL WICKHAM: Independent companies can get more on television, they have a high quota, but they can also retain more rights. That also is a big incentive for them to start distributing their product in other territories. And, of course, America is the big prize.

Last year Britain made a record $1.1 billion selling shows like “Supernanny” abroad. US companies were by far the biggest buyers, shelling out almost $400 million just for the ideas behind shows like “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars.”

BOB THOMPSON: After all those years of taking our “Baywatch” and “Love Boat” and giving us back “Brideshead Revisited,” the UK has decided it’s payback time.

Bob Thompson of Syracuse University says the Brits are simply getting revenge for an earlier torrent of American trash. But in a curious role-reversal, he says, the US is now sending back across the Atlantic to Britain some of the finest television ever made.

THOMPSON: You know, the likes of “Deadwood” and “Six Feet Under,” even “Sex In the City,””Entourage,” the “Sopranos”— every bit as good as anything that’s ever been made in television in any national system.

Cleverly conceived and written, and beautifully acted, some of these American shows have won critical acclaim but only small, albeit highly appreciative, audiences in the UK, says Phil Wickham.

WICKHAM: They are very vociferous in their appreciation. They also tend to be upscale, they tend to be quite educated, quite middle class. So they get quite a lot of publicity through that too.

There are still some great British TV shows. “Boiling Point” isn’t the best the Brits have to offer, but the British TV executives currently hustling in L.A. seem happy to shed the traditional cachet and cash in on the trash.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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