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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