Love It or Hate It

I really had not watched any British television before this class, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard of Skins and Doctor Who and seen the ads for Misfits on Hulu, but the rest was basically all new to me. What surprised me the most about the type of programming in the UK was that I either loved it or thought it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. There wasn’t really any middle ground – expect for the comedies that I just didn’t understand so I couldn’t make a proper opinion.

I think this is relates back to how different British TV is to American TV. The themes and concepts of shows reflect the very different societies in the US and the UK. So many of these have tried to be recreated in the US but have failed miserably because the type of content that can be shown here is more restricted. We don’t really have a post-wastershed time for the provocative material – like on many of the teen shows in the UK – to be aired. What each culture deems as socially acceptable really shapes what programs air in the two countries.

It was also interesting to learn that British series are super short – like 5 or 6 episodes tops. I don’t think I could stand waiting so long for a new series to start just to get a couple episodes that year! I guess if I grew up with that type of TV schedule I would be used to it, but coming from the American set-up of over 20 episodes a year, I was really surprised at the way TV airs in the UK.

Overall, I am extremely glad I took this class. Seeing the differences between British and American TV was really interesting, and I even found a couple new shows to catch up with  this summer…because I needed more TV to watch.

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Different Systems, and What it Means

Throughout the semester, what always stuck out to me was how much of an auteur’s medium British television is compared to American television. Television in general is considered a writer’s medium compared to film, but it is still a very collaborative process in America thanks to the writers’ room process. Before taking this class, I knew British shows usually had shorter runs and fewer seasons, but I didn’t know that it was usually one or two writers putting together each episode. This creative freedom really showed with programs like One Day, which simply wouldn’t be possible on American television.

At the same time, I honestly can’t say that I think this method of creating television is necessarily better. To me, it seems like having other people there to point out flaws in your script can lead to tighter episodes. Many criticized season two of Downton Abbey, saying that Julian Fellows wasn’t able to put together as good of a product as season one. Perhaps if he had had other writers to help him put together the season, it would have been much less uneven. On the other hand, there are so many American shows that are uneven and poorly written, where perhaps a singular creative vision might worked out better.

Finally, one interesting by-product of this system is how much control writers have in ending their shows. I found it fascinating to learn that show creators can just end their shows when they feel it’s right, like Russell Davies with Queer As Folk. That would be unthinkable here; if a show is a hit and the creator wants to move on, the network will just replace him or her. In the end, I can’t say which system is better, but I’m glad they both exist as a point of comparison. As someone who loves the business and industry related aspects of television, it was great to be able to look at an environment different from ours.

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British and American TV: Different Journeys, Same Destination

After spending a semester studying British television, I think I was most surprised about the fact that the industry and production side of things are so remarkably different than in the United States, yet ultimately the creative product is not that far off. The fact the largest network follows a public-service mandate and collects a license fee with no advertising is astounding. Personally, the way the American economy works, I don’t think it would be feasible to have a BBC-model type in the USA, yet the Brits seem to be making it work (though not without some struggles).

Then there is the production side of things – from a single writer running the show (think Armando Iannucci or Julian Fellowes) rather than a whole room of them, to foreign series lengths (Four episodes of “One Night” to a steady stream of “Coronation Street”), British television churns out shows in a very different manner than the United states concept of 13- or 22-episode seasons. Granted, there is a reason behind such production decisions (largely economic), but this is such a stark contrast to how it is done here, one would expect remarkably different results when it comes to the final on-screen product.

Yet in a sense, that is not the case. Adapted versions of “The Thick of It” and “The Office”, amongst numerous other shows, have found a home on American networks. “Downton Abbey” and “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” didn’t even need to be adapted and fit right in to American television in their original forms. Even shows like “Luther” and “Harry Hill’s TV Burp” seem to find parallel versions on American airwaves, and provide entertainment value that can be appreciated by us Yanks.

To be sure, there were some oddballs in the group – “Psychoville”, anyone? – but overall, I was entertained this semester like many Americans have been in the past by the charms of British TV. What shocked me was how different these shows’ origins are from their American counterparts.

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BGT Winning

Your final ratings update of the semester: Britain’s Got Talent crushed The Voice this weekend.

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More is Better with British TV

I came into the semester not having had very much experience with British television, and it seemed that experience was what I needed to grow in my appreciation of television from our friends across the pond. The more I watched the series we screened, the more I grew to like them and be interested in watching them even more. I found it really interesting how returning to a show made me want to watch it more than I had initially. Particularly when we watched comedies, I found myself going back to watch more of them.

Perhaps the best example of this for me was with The Mighty Boosh. The first time we screened it in class, I enjoyed the episode, but I didn’t find myself falling in love with the series. However, when I went to do my blog post I wanted to find The Mighty Boosh on radio to compare the television series to its predecessor. What ended up happening was that I found other television episodes on Youtube and I began to watch them. I watched one, then another, and another, and each time I enjoyed the series more and more. The other interesting part was how I would start watching an episode and then no matter what I found I had to finish it. This was the case for a good number of the programs we watched, including One Night. In my post I expressed that I didn’t like it much after the first episode, but like so many other programs, it grew on me the more I watched it.

I think the fact that I enjoyed many of the shows the more episodes I watched is a testament to a particularly good writing style. The writing makes for a need to soak in what you’re watching and really sit back to appreciate any jokes or style being presented. Maybe it has something to do with not being familiar with British television because I’m coming from an American perspective, but nevertheless, I think the appreciation through repetition is really a result of understanding and learning what a show’s writing style is all about. I can say that I now love a number of British television shows and I’ll be sure to go back and watch more of them – growing to like them more and more along the way.

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That’s all, folks

This course was a great foray into understanding and enjoying British television, but in many ways, I thought it was even more interesting as a cultural study. TV, as the main populist form of entertainment in most countries, as it turns out, is a fantastic way to glimpse into other cultures and understand their trends and differences and similarities between that country and another.

We spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting American and British television and most of the conclusions we cam to were all about the cultures of the two countries as well as industrial practices and production methods. From darker forms of humor to an interest in class interaction, the differences we noticed in British and American television tell us a lot about the differences in British and American culture, generally. At the same time, the shared popularity of reality television and a love of the mockumentary style showed that Brits and Americans aren’t so different after all.

And then, of course, we have shows that are beloved on both sides of the Atlantic (and around the world) like Downton Abbey and Sherlock that bridge the cultural divide and seem to have something interesting to say about what viewers want in their television regardless of country or culture.

A lot of what we were doing in comparing the television of these two countries was speculation as none of us are British, but I think this class proved fascinating in understanding British culture and how and why certain trends became popular over there.

As something of an Anglophile, I thought I had a decent understanding of British television before this class. As it turns out, I had a lot to learn, and thank god Netflix is full of British television because my summer “To Watch” list just got a whole lot longer.

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I have always had a lot invested within British culture…half of my relatives live in London, my mom grew up there, and by default I have a second passport that allows me to be a EU citizen. I remember growing up and spending holidays at my relatives’ homes being annoyed when some televisions only had five channels to scroll through, and the delight that was experienced when I would stay at the homes subscribed to Sky. This class was a substantial addition to what I have already been exposed to within the British TV landscape. What I have taken away is how very traditionally American I am with my television viewing and preferences.

The British shows that I connected to most: The Inbetweeners, Downton Abbey, The Only Way is Essex, Shameless, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and The Thick of It are all British shows that have the ability or already have made it on American lineups. Although I wish I connected more with the gritty, realistic, uncomfortable, and “quality” programming my preferences seem to lie within a very mainstream agenda. I found myself wanting to follow entertaining, likable, and only slightly edgy content. Times of when I have been immersed within the more British shows are when I am actually located in London with my family and a limited set of channels. Gathering around the TV and trying to catch up on the interwoven plotlines of EastEnders, following the housemates within the Big Brother house, or watching the quintessentially British game shows remind me of summers spent there. These social scenarios made television watching more of a group experience, and thus I became more invested. I needed this added form of interaction to get me into these British programs.

What I’ve learned is that I enjoy television that can bring the widest range of people together, which makes me a mainstream television viewer that adapts depending on my surroundings and amount of access to programming.

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Guess what, ratings are now falling for The Voice, and some are saying it’s because the judges are too nice. They just can’t make up their minds. Also, Channel 4 has ordered a full series of Ricky Gervais’s Derek.

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US-UK Comparisons

Here’s another comparison of UK and US TV, this one sparked by the Homeland finale. (Warning: If you haven’t watched Homeland yet and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this)

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For the Harry Potter + Mad Men Fans Out There…

This could be pretty damn cool….

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I’ve Learned A Lot….

All I knew before I came into this class was that somewhere overseas there was a network called the BBC. I didn’t even know there was more than one! American television was my life and until this semester had never had the desire to branch out and discover what other nations are doing to entertain audiences on the small screen. Well, now I know, or at least sort of understand what the UK is doing to keep up with trends.


At the start of this course I thought I may come out of this all with a new favorite channel, maybe I would develop a love for Channel 4 or perhaps the BBC Three would be particularly interesting to my tastes. However, none of that happened. And after thinking about it, I cannot say I have one ultimate, favorite channel on American television either. What this tells me is that great things are still happening, somewhere out there. Sure I can name several channels I do not care for, but if I had to choose one American and one UK network to watch for the rest of my life, I would be lost.


Even through some of the rough comedies, I have come to love what British television offers to this industry. The realism they strive to portray, whereas Americans shy away from it, sparks a passion in me that I didn’t know I had.  While it is hard to do, I would like to sum up this class with one final opinion/ take on British television, the comedies that strive to be hilarious are not, however the dramas that aim to make me think, deliver tenfold. The Promise, Sherlock and Downton Abbey are just a few of the ones that tickled my fancy and got me excited for the next episode. Thanks to this course I have even more shows to keep up on and watch, Misfits and The Inbetweeners to name a couple (so perhaps, I am partial to E4/ their take on comedy).

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A final wrap-up

I have to admit that I originally darted into this class because I needed another elective to complete and fulfill my major requirements. I essentially new very little to nothing about British television, and therefore had basically no expectations for the class as whole.

Now, at the end of the semester, when I reflect on the class, I am absolutely satisfied of what I have learned. Or, to put it more accurately, what I have been exposed to. That is, I have found that the greatest value of studying British TV is tied to the obvious fact that the British system represents an entirely different structure than the privatized American system. Until this class, however, I was totally unaware of the major programming differences that the public broadcasting kind of structure can lead to.

We have talked the entire semester about the differences between British and American TV shows and have debated about whether they would gain popularity or even be produced in the other’s system. However, as interesting as that topic is, to me the most fascinating aspect to consider is why one show would or would not translate as opposed to another. In this sense, I think it is the cause instead of the effect that is at the essence of what this class really delves into.

Thus, I believe that juxtaposing the two structures has opened up my analytical perspective on television as a whole to an extent that I have not reached before. Admittedly, my scope has always been more limited probably because I am a film major and therefore do not study TV structure, but nevertheless it has been a very positive experience throughout that has opened up my mind on TV theory.

I wonder if any of you Film or TV majors feel the same way, or feel it to the same extent that I do.

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My Experience in British Television

Coming into this class, my favorite television shows were all American series – Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Lost, Friday Night Lights, and The Wire. The important common characteristic among these dramas was there serial nature. This “cinematized television” where each episode was necessary in order to truly appreciate the depth and plot behind this (for all purposes) 12 hour movie was what drew me in as a viewer. I was in love with the feeling that each episode I watched was like a crucial stepping-stone towards understanding and reaching that elusive finale and I would insatiably consume these series because of it.

Thus, British television and its focus on short run series with very little serial elements threw me off at first. For example, I loved the first episodes of Doctor Who, Misfits, and Sherlock that I watched. However, after watching the next episodes of these respective series and realizing there was little carryover from episode to episode (aside from the characters), I found little incentive or reason to come back for more. These series felt more like little “adventures of the week” than comprehensive, serial narratives.

Yet, as the course progressed, I began to get more exposure to these series and the ideologies behind their design choices. This increased exposure bred a sort of fondness for these little pieces of bite-sized entertainment that I never thought I would remotely like. Although they may not have had the overarching narratives that I yearned for, their ability to take more creative liberties with each individual episode was something I developed a strong appreciation for. I began to spend every free moment using streaming services to finish Doctor Who, Misfits and Sherlock and these shows now rank up there with any of my favorite American television series.  Although widely different than the American-centric interests that I had developed, this experience in British television has opened my media mindset to appreciate a far greater range of programming. This new found appreciation will be the core influence behind my television watching this summer as I plan to watch Luther and Torchwood as soon as I finish these bloody finals.

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Final Post

The main distinguishing factor of British television for me was its unique scheduling practices. Shows aren’t on at the same time every day, and with the short-run seasons sometimes appearing with breaks of multiple years, you can never really expect the familiarity of a channel’s line-up you get in America. It’s interesting that the premiere dates of shows can be announced just a couple of weeks before they air, and that certain shows are pushed forward or back with little notice so they won’t compete with more popular programs. I remember flipping on the TV when I studied abroad in London and not really taking to it while I was there. It was really difficult to get myself set in a TV routine, as I had no idea how to adapt to a mere 20 channels with ever-shifting scheduling. I think now that I know the channels’ brands, understand this scheduling, and can recognize many actors and show creators, I’d relish the chance to go back and give regular TV viewing a shot.

Throughout the semester, I also noticed that in a lot of our readings and many things I read in my research, British television creators and critics continually compared British shows to UK shows to American ones. While I figured this was something we did naturally because of our home base and our lack of British TV context, I didn’t expect the same from the Brits. Because Hollywood TV and films have been aired in a mainstream way in the UK for so long, British-made content has the opportunity to be distinctly British. Time and again, we’ve heard how British shows use UK-specific comedy (true-life awkwardness or surreality), slow, dark, character-driven plots, less than attractive actors, social realism (especially class wars), UK locations, etc. etc. Television in the UK, due to its unique public service/commercial structure and the existence of Freeview along with abundant online catch-up material, really is distinct form American fare, and I’ve noted how it is pedestalized culturally (while often simultaneously vilified).

This class has also encouraged me to seek out more British television. I’m a big marathoner, and watching short-run British shows all in a row gets you through quite a greater variety of shows in a shorter time than watching American TV does. This is a great untapped pool of quality content, and I can’t wait to keep watching!

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Final Thoughts

I think what strikes me the most about British TV–what ultimately is the most defining to me–is the way in which a series can be ended simply because the writer/creator feels he or she has no story left to tell. That’s so anti everything I know about TV. American TV is so commercialized, so focused on ratings and audience and money, that it blows my mind how artistic British TV seems sometimes. The creators and writers in Britain seems almost auteurish in comparison to American TV. While I might have not always loved the shows we watched, I could always appreciate how many more risks British TV seems to be willing to take than American TV.

I definitely took more away from this class than I ever expected to. I didn’t realize how many differences there really were and how much of the television world was completely undiscovered (by me) until now.

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