British broadcasters should welcome American investment, not fear it

Here’s to more transatlantic TV collaboration. gavjof, CC BY-SA

Large parts of the British TV industry are at risk, according to David Abraham, chief executive of the UK’s Channel 4. He claimed public service broadcasting, which includes Channel 4 and the BBC, was “the only bulwark against a broadcasting industry dominated by US media moguls”. He referred to a “a special landscape” under threat from the large-scale mergers between US production and tech giants.

But take this with quite a large pinch of salt. The scale and variety of TV output is difficult to debate. Abraham appeared to be pitching his battle firmly upon the territory of drama, and leaving talent, property and cookery programmes aside. And even drama is an area where a more analytical discussion of the realities is possible.

Implicit within this is the assertion that British material is somehow superior to US productions. This would be a difficult argument to make in the current climate of such popular shows as True Detective, Breaking Bad and Modern Family, all of which won awards at the Emmys. Yes, House of Cards is an adaptation of a UK original but the scale, distribution, casting and marketing of the series is not something that would be readily achievable for today’s UK broadcasters.

There is a very British mentality that seeks to derive nobility from achieving the odd critical and commercial success from a small budget – the miracle smash hit like [The Office]( or Downton Abbey.

Downton has been an enormous hit in the US.

It should be said that Channel 4 in particular bears significant responsibility for the expectation and reliance upon American content. My teenage and student years were all but driven by a Friday night Channel 4 schedule that ran: 9pm: Friends, 930pm: Frasier, 10pm: South Park. Admittedly, I still had to go to BBC 2 for the 6pm Simpsons episode. E4 was for years almost a subsidiary of the Friends marketing department, following up more recently with Scrubs and New Girl. BBC 3 routinely shows more than three episodes of Family Guy in one day followed by a double American Dad whilst cancelling the inspired, quirky, popular British show Mongrels after two short series. The reason for this surprises no one. People watch these shows, they expect to see them.

It’s true that Abraham has no shortage of ammunition for his argument from the recent eras of British television. The country has produced Skins, Life on Mars, the resurgent Doctor Who, the brilliant State of Play and the seemingly un-killable Downton Abbey.

There is, however, a reality of scale from the script up that every content creator understands. Larger organisations have the infrastructure to read more material, find the best scripts from more than just the often stagnant talent pool of UK TV insiders – “preferred partners” as the BBC likes to call them.

Once they find that script, they have the courage born of scale to see that script into production, pay people properly for development, attract bankable cast, produce the series with strong production values and then market the product enough to prime its audience. They can afford to take more risk than institutions that must spend most of their money attempting to fulfil a somewhat patronising requirement in which script meetings become about how to shoehorn black characters into yet another Robin Hood adaptation. This isn’t to say that US networks are not completely brutal when it comes to cancelling series, but they will at least get them to the screen.

Breaking Bad is the highest rated show of all time.

The US TV market also offers longevity. The world has changed much from the “golden era” of half a dozen channels. In a world of quick-fire, disposable entertainment, such high quality drama as the UK would produce is likely to have the same number of episodes as US shows have series. It takes time for a series to find an audience and as demonstrated by shows such as Breaking Bad or Parks and Recreation, there must be enough content to allow for this. This is something UK broadcasters have consistently failed to provide.

Take the recent The Honourable Woman, hailed by many as a British Homeland. It ended after eight episodes which is, it must be said, fairly good going for a programme tackling the Middle East conflict.

This series is an example of the very trend Abraham fears. Lauded as one of the best British dramas of recent times, it was made on an American star-driven model in co-production with Sundance TV who are in turn owned by US cable giant AMC. AMC backstopped the creative risk in the same way as the feared American studios would whilst providing the funding to allow for the series’ obvious production values. In his review, the Telegraph’s Benji Wilson put it succinctly: “The foreign money and the quality of writing it begets also help to lure the foreign stars.”

To content creators then, the advent of more scale, more money and more platforms into British television is something that will be welcomed. There is, as Abraham suggests, the inevitable risk that the peculiarly unique elements that constitute British content may be marginalised in the drive for commercialism. But this is perhaps a greater risk to the corporate identities than it is to audiences who will continue to encounter choice, quality and empowerment through the Netflix model, and continue to consume content, both niche and mainstream, in ways the UK broadcasters with their ageing business models must evolve to embrace.