Sherlock and Downton Abbey are as good as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, says BBC boss

BBC head of television said box set snobs were to blame for perception that US TV dramas were better than British counterparts

Is a metropolitan elite of box set snobs responsible for the perception that US television dramas are far superior to their British counterparts?

Danny Cohen said that domestic dramas like Downton Abbey and Sherlock are just as good as House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and other award-winning US series.

Writing on a BBC blog, Mr Cohen argued that our perceptions of American superiority were skewed because “only the very best” US shows come to the UK.

“A trope has developed, a cultural meme that asserts that American drama is far superior to drama produced in the UK and at the BBC,” he wrote.

British shows were being unfairly maligned by “box-set consumers who have a larger voice in Britain's cultural dialogue than the average family who sit down at night in Britain's towns and villages to decide which drama they want to watch.”

 

Admitting that the BBC had sometimes produced shows that “fall short of expectations”, he said the corporation had a “hit rate” that “any network in the world would be very proud of”.

He cited recent successes such as crime thriller Happy Valley, 1950s drama Call The Midwife and detective series Luther. He also praised the ITV shows Broadchurch and Downton Abbey.

Whilst “box set viewers” delight in bingeing on multiple episodes of US series which advance characters over 13 or 26 episodes, Cohen wrote: “I would argue that the right length for a series is the one that most effectively and creatively fits the story being told.”

American producers are increasingly opting for shorter runs, he said, closer to the 6-part series which British viewers are familiar with.

The BBC Trust has instructed BBC1 to improve the variety and quality of its peak-time drama. The Crimson Field, a recent First World War-set drama commissioned by Cohen, was cancelled after its first series.

However Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright’s gritty thriller, received the highest ever quality score from audiences for a BBC1 drama.

“We will continue to encourage risk-taking and accept that with innovation sometimes comes imperfection,” wrote Mr Cohen, who is widely seen as a future Director-General candidate.

Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, said this year that drama output on BBC One would get a £30m cash injection from the closure of BBC Three as an on-air channel.

Mr Cohen said of US dramas, that it was “only the very best, the truly excellent that tends to travel as far as our shores.” He did not address acclaimed US ratings-winners such as The Good Wife, The Blacklist and Scandal which are also shown on UK cable and satellite channels.

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