March is proving to be the cruellest month for British television. Jobs are being shed on an unprecedented scale and investment slashed, as advertising collapses.
For the first time in half a century, the viability of a major chunk of British broadcasting is being openly questioned, as if it were the coal mining industry of the 1980s, or General Motors today. Just when things couldn't get much worse, a dangerous strain of self-flagellation is also creeping into the debate about television. For as long as most of us can remember, British TV has been trumpeted as the best in the world. Today it is a commonplace for commentators to assert that US television – and in particular US drama – has stolen that crown. This is dangerous nonsense at any time, and particularly dangerous now.
The past few years have, without doubt, seen a flowering of US drama series and comedy. The CSI franchise has turned into a global juggernaut, as have Lost and Desperate Housewives. But ratings success is never really the point. The hot spot in American TV is now cable, in particular HBO, AMC, FX and Showtime. It is their shows which are now cited as superior to pretty well anything the UK has to offer.
The BBC recently dispatched Greg Dyke to worship at the feet of HBO for an edition of The Culture Show, with the station responsible for The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb your Enthusiasm, Entourage and John Adams. AMC's Mad Men may not match the originality of the first, but the precision of its recreation of 1960s Madison Avenue is still breathtaking. And then there is Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It offered just about the best running commentary on the US Election, and is doing a pretty good job now on the financial crisis. So, is it game, set and match to the Americans?
Let's start with a few numbers. You would think from the press coverage they get, that people in Britain were actually watching these US shows. In fact, the audiences for them are miniscule. Last year the concluding series of The Wire on FX averaged 44,000 viewers. The first series of Mad Men on BBC4 attracted 136,000 viewers per episode. The lack of audience, given the avalanche of positive publicity, cannot entirely be explained away by their broadcast on channels buried deep on the electronic programme guide. Perhaps more important are the glaring gaps that exist across drama output in the USA. For example, adaptations of contemporary or classic novels are practically non-existent. In the past couple of years, the major terrestrials in Britain have broadcast high-quality adaptations of Dickens, Forster, Gaskell, Austen and Hardy, as well as bold dramatisations of contemporary novels, such as Jake Arnott's He Kills Coppers and David Peace's Red Riding. Which US network would have broadcast a dramatisation of a living President, to compare with the BBC's two-hour Margaret aired earlier this month? Where on US TV, over the past 12 months, can you find original drama to match Criminal Justice, Lost in Austen, Whitechapel, Joe's Palace or The Devil's Whore?
Let's accept that in scripted television – drama and comedy – there are strengths on both sides of the Atlantic, although I would argue that British drama wins on points, because of its range and sheer originality. Factual, on the other hand – documentary series, arts programming, news and current affairs, factual entertainment – is surely, in boxing terms, a technical knock-out for the UK, as is entertainment.
At the dawn of television, the UK was a massive importer of US game show formats. The past decade has seen a complete reversal of that trend, with versions of UK entertainment series dominating the US schedules.
So, with 2009 looking like it is going to be a watershed in British television, we need to be very clear about what it is we are trying to preserve. The unique ecology of TV in this country has produced a quite startling range, quality and depth of original content that has served audiences remarkably well, making a huge contribution to the creative economy. The notion that the industry has lost its way creatively – compared with the US – even before the full effect of the recession is felt on the schedules of the commercial broadcasters, couldn't be more untimely. And, I would argue, plain wrong.
Simon Shaps is former director of television at ITV