Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Dr. Who— what’s your favorite?
Why Americans love British TVBy Michele Harris
The hottest thing on American television isn’t a sitcom or a reality show or a police procedural. The hottest thing on American television is…British television!
Some of our most popular primetime network shows originated in the U.K., including The Office, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The X Factor. Look beyond the major networks to PBS and cable, and the British influence is even stronger. British originals like Sherlock and Downton Abbey on PBS and Dr. Who on BBC America have attracted legions of American fans who can’t seem to get enough of British TV shows.
This past September, BBC America, a cable channel run by the British Broadcasting Corporation expressly for an American audience, saw its best ratings ever. Perry Simon, BBC Worldwide America’s general manager, says, “The one-two punch of our returning hit series Doctor Who and our first original drama COPPER combined to set a new weekend ratings record. Taken together with our most-ever Emmy nominations and our increased distribution, it feels like BBC America is clearly a network on the move.”
We love watching British TV so much, we’re happy to watch re-runs of their old classics like As Time Goes By, Keeping up Appearances, To the Manor Born, and Fawlty Towers (named the best British TV show of all time)—all of which can still be seen somewhere in America.
A fundamentally different system
What distinguishes British TV from American TV? “A big part of the answer is that the British system is just fundamentally different from ours,” says Davis Foulger, a professor at Brooklyn College who taught a course about British television. “In America, we are entirely dependent on the commercial model. And in the commercial model, you are in the business of attracting eyeballs to a show. If a show doesn’t attract eyeballs, it doesn’t stay on.”
By contrast, the British model is funded by a mandatory television tax, allowing new shows time to develop an audience. It also places greater value on quality over quantity. Foulger says that while a U.S. network program may produce 26 episodes per season, BBC shows will typically produce only six or eight episodes per season.
Another substantial difference is the status of arts in general and drama in particular in Great Britain. “The British system does a very good job of schooling and developing actors. The same can be said for their directors and their writers,” says Foulger. “And part of that is that it’s easier to get work in Britain and harder to get work here. They have many more theater companies, and almost every town has a local Shakespearean company. They simply sponsor more arts than we do.”
As 2013 looms on the horizon, the mania for British shows will only grow stronger as fans anxiously await the return of Downton Abbey, the latest incarnation of PBS’s venerable Masterpiece series. “Downton Abbey has become a cultural phenomenon,” says WGBH Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “It is so gratifying to see our beloved Masterpiece, after more than 40 years on PBS, attracting a whole new audience.”
Downton Abbey joins a select group of shows that are more than just “must see TV.” “From viewing parties to Twitter mentions, Downton Abbey is riding a wave of public enthusiasm, and it’s been wonderful to see so many people discovering public television as a destination for programming that’s smart, distinctive, and entertaining,” says PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger.
Amy Mayers, a long-time British TV fan, says that shows like Downton Abbey provide a lens into another culture. “Watching certain American TV shows—they are too close to real life and they make me anxious,” says Mayers. “And Downton is so different, like you are going into a completely different world. I enjoy that kind of escape, even though it’s really just a fancy soap opera.”
While the Masterpiece series has always been popular, Downton Abbey has a more universal appeal, drawing more young viewers than ever before. By midway through the second season, female viewers between the ages of 18-34 were up 251% and women viewers between the ages of 35-49 were up 145%. Male viewership in the 18-34 and 35-49 age brackets also increased 111% and 84%, respectively. The teen audience has grown 88%.
Downton fans are looking forward to the third season of the show, scheduled to premiere on January 6. The six-episode season will see the addition of a new American character played by Academy Award-winner Shirley MacLaine. “Shirley MacLaine is a great actress and she’s as American as the day is long,” says Eaton. “I can’t wait to see her go toe-to-toe with Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet.”