The Big Question: Do all these Emmy awards herald a new golden age for British television?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

British producers of television drama, comedy and documentary walked off with six out of the nine Emmys given out in New York on Monday night. Among the winners were Little Britain, Gordon Ramsay and the actor Ray Winstone. There were also gongs for Channel Four's teenage lesbian drama, Sugar Rush, the time shift police show Life on Mars as well as a BBC documentary examining the effects of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima seen from both the United States and the Japanese point of view. The star-studded event, held before a ballroom brimming with the top movers and shakers in the world of television, was hosted by the British comic Graham Norton. To underline the air of patriotic triumph, France Germany and the Netherlands collected just one award each.

Is Britain now the world's leading TV power?

No, not quite. Monday night's awards were decided by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, representing 70 countries and more than 500 companies. In other words, it didn't include the big-budget shows from the all-powerful US networks. Without their inclusion some observers consider the International Emmys to be an also-ran's prize with Britain going up against "second-division" television powers like Korea, Canada and Japan who, incidentally, have been gradually catching up with the traditional European winners in terms of prizes.

And the UK has not always had its way. It may have triumphed in three out of the past four years, and won four out of five for children's TV, but it has not always dominated other fields. The last time a British programme won the comedy award was in 2003 for the Kumars at Number 42, since then it went to Canada and Germany. Meanwhile, Denmark picked up the gong for best drama in three out of the past four years.

How good is British television?

The real testing ground for British TV remains the American market. And this year's Emmys were, as expected, dominated by the big US shows - Kiefer Sutherland's 24, West Wing, The Sopranos, Will and Grace, My Name is Earl. But the Brits did well against tough opposition. Ricky Gervais was in the audience to watch the US remake of The Office awarded the prize for best comedy. Dame Helen Mirren collected her third Emmy for her performance in Elizabeth I, while Jeremy Irons was named best supporting actor for his role in the historical mini-series. The Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald was also recognised for her portrayal of a woman who befriends a diplomat at a G8 in Richard Curtis's TV movie, The Girl in the Café. The Office also won a prestigious Golden Globe this year, as did British actor Hugh Laurie for his performance as the maverick doctor in House.

Gervais collected two gongs at the 2006 Rose D'Or when Britain won three of the eight categories. In 2005 the judges awarded British programmes six prizes, down from eight the previous year.

But aren't British schedules infested with reality TV?

Yes, and that is one of the UK industry's great strengths. Britain leads the world when it comes to exporting TV formats and has collected its fair share of awards for them. Last year exports of shows such as Pop Idol, Wife Swap, Supernanny and The Apprentice earned programme makers £1.3bn - up 20 per cent on the previous year. The US bought nearly a quarter of those shows. Analysts say the large number of independent production companies, a model that flourished following the launch of Channel Four 25 years ago, is responsible for this culture of innovation. It is estimated that 80 per cent of new formats come from the independent sector. The trail was blazed by Celador, which turned Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? into an international success when it was bought by ABC in the US 10 years ago. While some critics might bemoan the proliferation of the format approach, programme makers find them highly profitable, relatively cheap and easy to exploit through merchandising, phone and text-in opportunities.

Is this a new Golden Age?

That depends on how old you are. Those that grew up in the 1960s insist television was then at its creative height. Still new and exciting, the medium drew massive audiences. In the UK, programmes like Steptoe and Son, Hancock and Cathy Come Home are now viewed as the commanding heights of creativity. They became national shared experiences. For those who came of age in the 1970s, it is the power of the single television drama, Fawlty Towers or Panorama that continues to influence down the years. It is a similar story in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the industry is now in the midst of a structural change. Formats work well in the multi-channel world where broadcasters have hundreds of hours of television to fill. Classic re-runs, children's and film channels all now have their place. But audiences continue to fragment and the relentless growth of the internet could well mean the end of "appointment" television within a generation as viewers choose what, and when, they want to watch.

What will happen in the future?

There are those that believe British television is at a crucial crossroads. The success of comedies such as The Office, and Little Britain, the flourishing format market, and the ability of the BBC to deliver landmark series such as Planet Earth is seen as evidence that creativity is surviving the onslaught of technology. However, there are fears that both the BBC and ITV - the twin pillars of Britain's televisual heritage - are under threat.

The corporation, having successfully negotiated its charter renewal, is facing a funding squeeze with licence increases slipping below inflation. The future of the single channel ITV is also up for grabs. Sir Richard Branson has complained of "distorted competition" in the wake of Sky's audacious shares grab last Friday. And, the question of whether Channel Four will remain in the public sector will be decided by Ofcom in March 2007.

In our ever-more competitive individualistic society, the Reithian principles that many believe gave the British television its Golden Age - inform, educate and entertain - appear patronising and patrician rather than a successful media strategy.

Audiences now have more choice than ever before, the challenge facing programme makers, if they are to survive, is giving them what they want.

Is British television better than ever?


* Creativity is at an all-time high, thanks to the growth of independent production companies

* British programmes and actors continue to enjoy success at important international award ceremonies

* Rosy memories of programmes watched during one's formative years are often inaccurate and exaggerated


* Schedules are packed full of reality TV, celebrities, true life and other boring format shows that patronise the intelligent viewer

* In fact, it is American-made programmes which dominate the international television market

* Technology, the internet and the proliferation of channels is dividing audiences and thus reducing programme-making budgets