British television: simply the best?

As I was growing up, I spent many summers visiting my grandparents in Nova Scotia. Visiting my mom’s parents was one of the highlights of the summer, as her father had a ridiculously large video collection. One thing that always struck me as peculiar, though, were his television viewing habits: originally from England, he seemed to enjoy all manners of films, but favoured British television shows over American. He always maintained that British television was just better.

This notion always confused me. How could the same Hollywood machine that had churned out excellent films for over 100 years be unable to do the same for television? How could a handful of British television networks (the BBC, ITV and Channel Four) achieve what the American conglomerates could not? Moreover, how was it that the Hollywood engine always seemed to fail whenever they attempted to adapt British shows for American audiences?

Prior to the explosion of cable television in the last decade, most Canadians got their major exposure to British shows via PBS broadcasts from the United States. Shows like Coupling, Men Behaving Badly and The Office have tickled funny-bones around the globe, but attempts to update them for American audiences have largely failed. Men Behaving Badly lasted six years in England and only two in America. The British Coupling lasted for four years, the American version aired four episodes. The American Office only initially received a six-episode order from NBC, in part because of the outright failure of previous British properties in the American market. A re-tooling of the show in the off-season away from the British premise and the rising movie-stardom of actor Steve Carell are credited by industry pundits with saving The Office from closure.

Stranger still, is the success of American versions of hit British quiz shows. The Weakest Link, Whose Line is It Anyway? and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? all became huge hits almost immediately. This is also ignoring the runaway success of American Idol, based upon British hit Pop Idol. Why have British sitcoms done so badly over here, but British game shows done so well? Is the oft-used “America and Britain have different cultures” argument valid? The answer may be a bit more complicated than that.

It goes without saying that the majority of sitcoms produced in a country are written by people from that country, so Friends was written by people that would get the cultural references made in the show. British sitcoms were written by British writers for British audiences, so the cheapest possible approach taken by American networks–take an existing script, change geographical references and hope for the best–was fundamentally flawed because the humour in a show like Friends lay more in the characters than the setting. The American pilot episode of The Office was a shot-for-shot remake of the British curtain-jerker and most of the first-season episodes were straight adaptations of British episodes, albeit slightly watered-down. Only when the writers began to flesh out the characters to differentiate them from their British counterparts did anyone really care about the show. The few successful sitcom adaptations retained the premise of their original but tossed out everything else.

The appeal of adapting British game shows becomes obvious: there are no writers to pay to rewrite episodes for American audiences and the concepts are often fairly idiot-proof. The average episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? or American Idol is almost indistinguishable from its British counterpart and works because there’s no cultural gap, perceived or otherwise, stopping audiences from enjoying the show. The complete and utter lack of writing and characters means that, so long as the premise is engaging, nothing can pull the audience away. With this in mind, it’s no small wonder that the biggest foreign influence on American TV has been the game show.

Throughout the entertainment industry, redoing other peoples’ work has a huge appeal, largely because most of the work is already done for you. However, adapting anything without making some consideration of your audience is a recipe for failure, as the various failed adaptations of British programs has proven. When a program, scripted or otherwise, has a strong enough concept, everything else can be cut away and work can be done on creating something lasting.