Adoration of US television is 'dangerous nonsense'

It's fashionable to argue that Americans do it best when it comes to quality TV drama. But close inspection of the output reveals that the Brits are still number one, says Simon Shaps

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing