Is this the Next British Invasion? British Television Takes the States

by Janet Martin

There seems to be a certain trend in television these days. British-period drama “Downton Abbey” has won countless awards, including Outstanding Miniseries or Made for Television Movie at the 2011 Emmys. Three of the top ten television series on TV.com have roots in the United Kingdom or BBC and United Kingdom-born actors like Christian Bale, Daniel Craig and Liam Neeson are starring in some of the year’s biggest blockbusters.

In her May 2010 dissertation, “The British Invasion of American Television,” Deborah Starr Seibel of the University of Southern California points out that the top 10 highest ranked primetime shows in the United States in the past decade—“American Idol,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “Survivor,” to name a few—were all run by Brits. Add that to the worldwide viewing of the royal wedding, and it would seem we have a new British invasion on our hands. This time, the wave is bringing in a wide selection of hot British television that Americans are anxious to view. But is it really an invasion this time around?

Cornering the Market with Science-Fiction, Period Dramas and Remakes

Nvate British Television in the USA Bryan Elsley Skins

According to TV.com, “Merlin” is the most popular show in America right now and although this show airs on SyFy, it is originally a BBC production. Not too far behind, at number five, is “The X Factor,” an American remake of a British talent competition. At number seven is “Doctor Who,” a BBC staple that has been gaining popularity with American audiences since its return in 2005. Oddly enough, these three shows represent the two of the three ways in which our neighbors across the pond seem to be taking over—remakes and science-fiction dramas. The other category is period dramas, but the British-intensive “Downton Abbey” shows that the United Kingdom corners that market as well. American shows like “Skins,” “The Office,” “America’s Got Talent” and “The Inbetweeners” are all U.S. remakes of popular British shows. When one considers the fact that the American “Skins” only lasted one season, as opposed to the six seasons of the British “Skins,” it would seem that the Brits do it better—“Skins U.K.” is also 37 on the TV.com list while the “Skins U.S.” doesn’t rank.

What Makes British Television Different?

So what is it about British television that captures the attention of so many Americans? According to Bryan Elsley, creator and writer of “Skins U.K.” and “Skins U.S.,” part of the appeal comes from the overall attitude in Britain.

Nvate British Television in the USA Bryan Elsley Skins

“There is a less commercial edge to much British television,” Elsley said. “The non-advertising model on the BBC encourages the other broadcasters to be daring.” This can be seen in the two different productions of Elsley’s series. “Skins” is a teen drama that follows a group of friends as they deal with sex, drugs and other serious issues facing modern day adolescents. One of the biggest differences between the two productions is that the original allowed cursing while the MTV remake bleeped out any swearing. It may seem like a minute detail, but it is a basic example of the “daring” Elsley mentions. There is also a special brand of British humor.

“There is an atmospheric irony to much British drama,” said Elsley, “that finds an audience in America.” Elsley also feels there is a “certain irreverent tone; a self-deprecation which doesn’t come natural to the Americans, [that] gives British shows a feeling of transgressive freedom.” He is not alone in this thought. In her dissertation, Seibel quotes British executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, “[The British] have been successful because we have the confidence and the arrogance to believe that we can tell stories.” There does seem to be a certain air about British series that is missing from their American counterparts.

American Shows That are Popular Across the Pond

That does not, however, mean that American television is lacking or that there is not an equal amount of invasion occurring the other way. As a major contributor to a U.K. original and the U.S. remake, Elsley has experienced television in both markets. While he does admit that some shows fail when remade, in general, “there is a basic and fundamental affection for British society which, I might say is totally reciprocated on this side of the pond. We like each other, and for that reason, U.S. shows, often the more difficult or challenging ones, are tremendously popular here.”

This can be seen in shows like “Britain’s Next Top Model,” “Are You Smarter Than a 10-Year-Old?” and “Geordie Shore”—all U.K. shows that have roots in America. In an article in The Independent, Gerard Gilbert sought to answer the question, “Why do British TV dramas fail to match the imports?” In order to so, he discusses the American drama “Homeland” and compares it to similar British dramas. He found the British dramas lacking.

“Whatever our national pride in what we do, the USA remains the most sophisticated and challenging TV market in the world, where truly amazing things can and do happen,” Elsley said. “There is a great deal of dross in U.S. television, but the best of it is the best in the world. And by a long way.”

Mutual Respect: An Exchange of Material

So rather than a new British invasion, the 21st century is home to mutual respect and interest. There is an exchange of content and material that creates more of a proverbial melting pot than a one-sided monopoly. Part of this internationalization of television is due in part to technology. In the “Internationalization of Television,” a 1991 article in the European Journal of Communication, Ralph M. Negrine and Stylianos Papathanassopoulos believe that “contemporary technological advances—cable and satellite broadcasting—have all contributed to change.”

With cable, people have access to channels previously unavailable and BBC America serves as an example of this. The network mixes original BBC shows like “Doctor Who” with shows like “Copper,” which is a show directed by an American and takes place in 19th century New York. Although not mentioned in the article, Internet sources like Netflix have also played a part in the exchange of media by allowing audiences all over to view a wide variety of programming. In fact, Netflix offers users a special “British TV” option large enough to break into over 10 sub-genres, about half of which can be further divided.

As with most information, the Internet makes it easy to access videos and media previously excluded to all but the native population. In their article, “Television and Digital Media,” Lynn Spigel and Max Dawson, both professors of communication at Northwestern University, believe these technologies—as well as things like DVR, which allowed the royal wedding to be viewed despite the time difference—“make it possible for viewers to participate in television that transcends national borders. Television programming now circulates internationally at unprecedented speeds.” With this transcendence comes the possibility for a mixing and melding of ideas, allowing for the possibility of content that has the best of both worlds.

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