There’s a strong argument for saying that television is currently going through a Golden Age of Drama, with such shows as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones becoming the office-talk fodder and media darlings of the last few years. It is interesting that this has come at a time of transition for the television industry; after a period which I would consider a nadir for TV with the rise of reality television in the late 1990s through to the late 2000s, as television executives recognised the decreased costs of these shows versus scripted drama, new technologies including streaming and new writing methodologies have forced studios to adapt to a changing television market, leading in some cases to some huge critical and commercial successes. It seems somewhat peculiar, therefore, that even with all of these critically acclaimed shows going around, I have less tolerance for television now than I might have had ten years ago, when television was going through a slump.
At present, I watch very little television and the little that I do watch has almost all been on British television stations. I watch a moderate amount of sport – Formula One, rugby union, association football, motorcycle road racing including the Isle of Man TT and some other sporting events here and there – along with Doctor Who, Top Gear (I’ll give the new formula a try as well) and strangely, Downton Abbey. Of the much lauded television shows I listed above, I have only watched a single one at all, Breaking Bad, with part of the reason for that being because as a former chemistry student, I wanted to see how the chemistry played into the story.
The majority of the television shows that have come into public prominence recently have been American, which is relevant, as there are a number of significant differences in the way that American programmes are made versus British programmes which causes me to favour British shows. Probably the most significant of these differences is the number of episodes produced per British series versus an American season and consequently, how long many British shows will run versus their American counterparts. A British television series will regularly consist of four to six episodes, with the shows often wrapping up after two to four of these series. In comparison, an American television series will regularly have at least 13 episodes per season, with 20 to 26 more common, while six or more of these seasons is not rare for a successful show. While shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Sons of Anarchy have typically stuck to a 13-episode season, this is still long by comparison to most British contemporaries.
There are a number of reasons for this disparity, including the much smaller writing teams on British shows – perhaps even a single writer for a whole series – along with the economics of syndication and advertisement space, but whatever the reasons, an American programme will regularly be more of a time sink than a British show. With considerably more content to go through and much more of it filler, I’m reticent to watch an American show until its run is up just so that I make sure that I don’t end up throwing my time into a programme which shows early promise, but trails off near the end because the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t dig themselves out. This, of course, increases the chances of being hit by spoilers.
Even in the case of the shows that do remain consistent to the end, the sheer bulk of most of the American shows makes me reluctant to face the prospect of what may be 40 hours or more of viewing unless the show is going to be a phenomenon in the vein of The Sopranos or M*A*S*H or the like. I am not a natural binge-watcher; I only have tolerance for about two hours of television at a time and that’s when I’m in a mood to watch it. Given that in the time it takes to watch an entire American show, I could complete at least one decently-sized video game, most of the time, I’d rather do that and have the sense of achievement.
The disparity between British and American television is most starkly seen when American television networks, for some reason or another, decide to remake a successful British show. For me, the most risible example of this was The Office, which in the American remake had a frankly obscene nine seasons and 201 episodes. The British version? Two series, 12 episodes plus three specials. This is an interesting case since the creators, writers and producers of the UK version, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, were heavily involved in producing the American version and while I frankly can’t fault them for being tempted by the fat stacks of American currency they must have been offered, I think this is a cautionary tale for how elephantine an American show can get even when based on a tightly written British concept.
The Office is also notable because it illustrates how much more willing the British television producers are to cast people who look much more normal and down-to-earth than the Americans. In British shows, you’re more likely to see people who aren’t necessarily conventionally attractive, while in American shows, with the exception of a few people made to look “Hollywood ugly”, if you don’t have straight, sparkling-white teeth and perfect skin, you can forget about being cast. Then again, this manifests itself in the different senses of humour in British and American television; British shows tend to be bleaker, with far more self-deprecation and dry wit compared to the more blunt, bombastic affairs on American television.
I’ve identified why I’m not particularly inclined to watching the big American television shows of the moment, yet I don’t have time for much British television either right now. While I might be more inclined here and there to pick up a new British show off the cuff, I still don’t go out of my way to find new shows on British networks either. A lot of what has made British television interesting in the past is at risk of slowly fading into non-existence. British television – on the terrestrial end at least – has traditionally revolved around a small number of stations. Two of these, BBC One and BBC Two, are run by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is almost unique in its largely non-commercial funding system, being largely funded by British taxpayers through the use of a licence tax. There are no advertisements on BBC television; in fact, there have been – which may still apply – some very strict rules on the use of brand names and product placement on the BBC channels in the past. The other stations, including ITV and Channel 4, are more traditionally funded through ad breaks.
Recently, there has been somewhat of a public backlash against the BBC, catalysed in part because of the very licence fee that sustains it. There has been criticism of the licence fee in the past, but such criticism was difficult to sustain when the BBC were making shows which people considered worth the price. However, the BBC has been hit as hard with the reality television bug as many other networks, which has removed a lot of its unique character. As well as that, the current politics of the United Kingdom have not helped the BBC’s case; the leading Conservative Party and in particular, its leader David Cameron have been closely linked to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, which among other things includes BSkyB, Britain’s largest commercial satellite television provider, along with several newspapers including the Sun and the Times. Murdoch serves to benefit if the BBC gets defunded. Given Murdoch’s influence over the Conservative government, this has the potential to create a vicious circle, where as the funding for the BBC diminishes, the quality of the shows the BBC can put forward diminishes correspondingly and in turn, the case for keeping the BBC publicly funded grows weaker.
I happen to quite like the advert-free structure of BBC television, which not only doesn’t have awkward breaks in between the programs, but leads to more actual content per hour as well as a place where commercial enterprises can’t apply leverage to censor content that they don’t like. This was important when it came to Top Gear, where the now-departed trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May could openly criticise various cars without having to worry about losing funding from automotive companies. In an increasingly partisan news environment, it would also be nice to see a more impartial news broadcaster, a role which has been fulfilled well by the BBC before and could work again given a few tweaks – as long as the BBC doesn’t have to buckle under pressure from Rupert Murdoch and his Conservative buddies.
What I can say about that matter at least is that if the BBC are forced to adopt a commercial model, whether by advertising or subscription, I will probably stop watching television altogether. The alternatives, which include overlong, filler-heavy American shows at best and a lot of things that are much worse, isn’t worth the cost of admission.