American TV fails to shake off its pride and prejudice

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN newspapers have been full of "Why, oh why?" columns in the last two weeks, lamenting the failure of US television to match the quality of programmes made in Britain.

The moans were provoked largely by Channel 4's The Politician's Wife, whose final episode was shown on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) Masterpiece Theatre slot last Sunday.

Newspapers from Seattle to Orlando and Baltimore to Los Angeles were lavish in their praise. They thought The Politician's Wife was "splendid", "superb", "exquisite", "delectable". "What a welcome surprise is this topical, meaty and terrifically entertaining two-part mini-series," said USA Today. "It comes, naturally, from England, where it's OK to tackle adult subjects with nervy, grown-up intelligence." The Baltimore Sun described it as "one of those offerings from Britain that make you want to scream: 'Why can't the American television industry make this kind of exquisite social drama for literate adults?' "

The short answer is a lowest-common-denominator approach. In the words of the Baltimore Sun, "our television film industry is, not surprisingly, a product of the larger culture that says bigger is better and what pleases the most is the best".

But the critics' enthusiasm for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice and numerous other British programmes broadcast in America in the last year did not translate into the high ratings andprofits that drive the corporations running national American TV.

Five million people tuned in to watch the Channel 4 mini-series. PBS - undernourished, underwatched cousins of the BBC - were delighted. But by the standards of the four commercial networks the number was negligible. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, which are freely available to all TV owners, would see no reward in paying even the relatively modest sums required to purchase a second-hand British drama. Much less would they consider risking the large amounts of money required to create British-style drama of their own.

Which means that while programmes such as The Politician's Wife do wonders to sustain the special relationship among those Americans able to identify Britain on the map, the truth is that the current of mass culture flows more irrepressibly when it is set on an eastward course.

Cheers, Roseanne and NYPD Blue have left their impression on British culture. In America, notwithstanding the admiration of the cognoscenti, British TV has made a small dent. A taste for the BBC's and Channel 4'shighfalutin productions marks you out as a member of what one popular right-wing radio loudmouth describes as "the quiche and croissant set". It also marks you out as faintly subversive.

While lack of profit is the main reason why British TV products are consigned to the relative obscurity of niche outlets like PBS and the Arts and Entertainment cable channel, a related reason for the resistance of the American mass market to British TV is that it is too risque.

Never mind traditional US perceptions of British stuffiness. American social mores remain frozen in time. Take The David Letterman Show, a late night CBS offering which trades in New York hip. Towards the end of last year one of the guests on the show was a Dutch underwear model. Letterman introduced her and, to hoots of orchestrated hysteria, she tottered in a tiny dress towards her seat.

What did she make of America? "Too conservative, too puritan," she replied. Letterman's jaw dropped. The audience gasped. "In Holland smoking marijuana is legal." Letterman - nightmare images of advertisers pulling the plug - announced a commercial break. She was immediately shown the door.

Jay Leno, Letterman's ABC challenger for the midnight market, recently had the British actress Emma Thompson on his show. Everything was going well until she used the word "erection" - in connection with a troublesome horse on the set of Sense and Sensibility.

If she registered Jay's discomfort, she gave no sign of it. Ms Thompson's cultural faux pas perhaps derived from her exposure to the rarefied milieu of America's arty intelligentsia - the sort of people who might have enjoyed Absolutely Fabulous, another product received with enthusiasm by the critics when first seen in America a year ago.

The show did not, however, make it on to the national networks. It was too racy, too wild. So it became what Americans call "a cult hit", available to a limited audience on the cable channel Comedy Central.

The formula, however, appealed to the networks, which came up with a couple of diluted derivatives entitled Cybil and High Society. Roseanne, the comic actress with the show that bears her name, went a step further: she bought the rights to produce a cloned version for American TV. Her idea was to sell it to ABC. But they took one look at what she had in mind and ran a mile. The word is that she is pitching her show - to be called Abfab - on HBO, a cable company which can risk offending conventional taste because its revenue depends on private subscription. On HBO grown- ups can use the language they use at home.

Those who seek shelter in British TV tend to fall into two categories, the nostalgic old and the weird young: people who read books and still rememember the ancient historic connection; and the kind who belong to organisations like the Society of the Rusting Tardis, a Seattle club spawned by Dr Who enthusiasts but now expanding its range of interests to gather and watch videos once a week of, among other things, re-runs of the German TV version of Monty Python, with English subtitles.

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