Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The New British Invasion of American Television

British television shows are certainly no stranger to American television. It was in 1955 that The Adventures of Robin Hood made its debut on CBS and became the first real hit of British origin on American shores. The Sixties may well have been the heyday for British programmes airing on American television. During the decade such British series as The Avengers, Danger Man (under the title Secret Agent), The Saint, and many others aired on the American broadcast networks. Sadly, the late Sixties would see a decline in the number of British shows airing on American television. The American commercial broadcast networks stopped buying British shows, so that those British programmes that did come to the United States either did so through PBS or syndication.

While many of these shows would develop large followings, British television shows remained very much a niche market in the United States for the next several decades. For all that Monty Python's Flying Circus, Are You Being Served and Red Dwarf may have had devoted followings, they were still hardly part of mainstream American television.  It was a rare thing when a British show, such as Upstairs, Downstairs, would capture the attention of the United States as a nation. In the past several years, however, this appears to have changed. Much as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Avengers were in their day, it can now be said that there are British television shows that are part of mainstream American television, even if they do not air on the commercial broadcast networks.

One of these shows is actually rather old and was a mainstay of British television for literally decades. Doctor Who debuted in November 1963 and would remain on the air until 1989. The show first came to American television in 1972, failing to create much interest. It was in 1978 that Doctor Who became a regular on PBS for years. Sadly, the BBC would cancel the programme in 1989 and efforts to revive it (such as the 1996 television movie) failed. Fortunately, in 2005 Doctor Who was successfully revived and has remained on the air since. In the United States it has aired on BBC America, where it has proven to be its most popular programme. Indeed, its debut earlier this month drew 1.6 million viewers, which is small compared to most broadcast network series, but very good for a series airing on a cable channel in the United States. If there is any doubt that Doctor Who, long a favourite of American sci-fi fans and Anglophiles, has become a part of mainstream American television, the fact that it appeared on the 25 July 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly should dispel that.

Another mainstay of British television has also become something of a mainstream success in the United States. The original version of Top Gear debuted in 1977.  The original series would come to an end in 2001, only to be revived in 2002. It has been running ever since. The new version of Top Gear debuted on BBC America in 2007, where it has become one of the cable channel's most popular shows. The show has been popular enough to inspire home grown versions in Australia, Korea, Russia, and even the United States. While an American version airs on the History Channel, it is the original British version of the show that remains the most popular. On the surface it would appear unlikely that a British automotive show as well known for its controversies as its discussions about cars would have mainstream success in the United States, but it appears to have done exactly that. The long running news magazine 60 Minutes did a profile of the series, and it has been covered by such American publications as Time. 

Both Doctor Who and Top Gear are older programmes, but a fairly recent British show has also seen a good deal of mainstream success. Indeed, Downton Abbey may have seen more success in the United States than either Doctor Who or Top Gear Downton Abbey debuted on ITV on  26 September 2010. It made its American debut on PBS' series Masterpiece on 9 January 2011.  Downton Abbey delivered very good ratings for PBS upon its American debut, and in the months that followed its run on PBS it gathered more and more viewers through the internet and DVD release. When its second series aired on Masterpiece in January and February it performed even better, with an average of 5.4 million viewers, making it more watched than some lower rated shows on the commercial networks. In fact, Downton Abbey would accomplish something no programme on PBS ever had before it--it came in second to the Super Bowl in ratings for the night of 5 February 2012. Downton Abbey received coverage in American newspapers, magazines, and television news programmes in a way that few British television shows have before. Even if one could argue that Doctor Who and Top Gear have not seen mainstream success in the United States, it would be very difficult to argue that Downton Abbey has not.

Downton Abbey would not be the only British show that has recently proven to be a hit on PBS. Sherlock, which updated Sherlock Holmes to the 21st Century, debuted on BBC One on 25 July 2010. The series made its American debut on Masterpiece on PBS on 24 October 2010. Its first series received fairly good ratings in the United States, but like Downton Abbey its Stateside following would grow after its initial run in America. When the second series debuted on Masterpiece on 6 May 2012, it garnered 3.2 million viewers. In other words, it actually performed better than such hit cable series as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It has been covered in such newspapers as The Chicago Sun-Times and such magazines as Entertainment Weekly. If that were not enough to prove Sherlock as a mainstream success in the United States, many suspect that the new CBS series Elementary (also dealing with Sherlock Holmes in modern times, although it is set in the United States rather than Britain) was inspired by the success Sherlock, although CBS denies this.

While these are the most successful recent British shows airing in the United States, those that have broken into the mainstream, there are yet other British shows that have developed followings in the U.S. in recent years. The supernatural drama Being Human proved to be popular on BBC America and even has an American counterpart that airs on Sy-Fy. While Gordon Ramsay has had hit series made here in the United States, his British series continue to be popular on BBC America. Although not as wildly popular as Doctor Who, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood continues to have a following here in the United States. Its last series aired on the premium channel Starz. It proved popular enough that Starz would consider another Torchwood series provided producer Russell T. Davies has the time.

As to why British TV series would return to prominence in the United States for the first time since the Sixties, the reasons are probably many. Primary among these is simply the fact that for the past many decades PBS has relied on British imports  for Masterpiece and Mystery, while its local stations have relied on British shows to fill their schedules. Series ranging from Cadfael to Jeeves and Wooster have aired on Masterpiece and Mystery. At the same time local PBS stations aired many British shows over the years, including Monty Python's Flying Circus, Are You Being Served, All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Keeping Up Appearances, Doc Martin, and many others. In combination with the British shows that had aired on the American commercial networks in the Fifties and Sixties, many of which would continue to be popular in syndication, the British programmes that aired on PBS would create an audience in the United States for British programming.

Another reason that British shows would gain mainstream popularity in the United States would be the expansion and increasing specialisation of cable television from the Seventies to the Nineties. Starting in the mid-Seventies, cable television expanded rapidly in the United States, resulting in the creation of several cable channels, such as TBS and the USA Network. By the Eighties cable channels started to become much more specialised. A&E originally centred on arts and entertainment, while MTV originally aired only music videos and other musically oriented programming. The creation of specialised cable channels in the United States has continued to this day. With specialisation emerging in cable channels in the United States, it was inevitable that a cable channel specialising in British programming would arise. It was then on 29 March 1998 that the British Broadcasting Corporation launched BBC America. BBC America not only aired programmes made for the BBC, but also shows from other British broadcasters, such as ITV and Channel 4. Like PBS, BBC America played a large role in creating an audience for British programming.

Of course, BBC America would not be the only cable channel to air British programmes. In the days when A&E was still devoted to arts and entertainment, it aired many shows of British origin. Some of these were shows that had aired on the commercial networks in the Sixties, such as The Avengers. Others, such as Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders, had originally aired in the United States on PBS. Still others, such as Hornblower and The Scarlet Pimpernel, made their debut on A&E. Like PBS and BBC America, A&E did its part in creating an audience for British television.

Another reason that British programming has once again come to prominence nay be that for much of the time since the Seventies the American commercial broadcast networks have demonstrated little variety in their programming since the Seventies. For most of those decades the American commercial broadcast networks appear to have been content to continually air the same old things. This has been no different in the Naughts and the Teens than it was before. While the past decade did see cycles towards police procedurals, reality shows, and talent competition shows, it also saw yet more medical dramas, standard police dramas, sitcoms, and, even though they have a massive failure rate, legal dramas. It is notable that the most successful British shows in the Untied States tend to be of the sort of genres that  have been rarely seen on American television: science fiction (Doctor Who), mystery (Sherlock), Edwardian period pieces (Downton Abbey), and so on. The sameness of the programming on the American commercial broadcast networks may also explain the success of such cable shows as Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad. Viewers bored with the shows on the American broadcast networks might tune in to shows elsewhere, some of which might just happen to be British.

It is difficult to determine whether British programmes will continue to see mainstream success here in the United States. In the Sixties, when The Adventures of Robin Hood was still in reruns and shows such as The Avengers and The Saint were airing on the commercial broadcast networks, it must have seemed like British shows would remain a prominent part of American programming. Sadly, by the early Seventies they could only be found on PBS and in syndication. Despite the success of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, then, it could be that in several years one might hear little of British shows in the United States beyond PBS and BBC America. With any luck this will not be the case, and we continue to see British programmes prove to be hits here in the United States.

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