TV in the UK

18 Oct

I thought Mikki did a great job in her post talking about the development of TV in France, so I figured I would talk a little about TV in the UK since I spent a good deal of time studying there last year and noticed some significant differences in political and cultural approaches to TV.

As most people would guess, the BBC is the single most important TV institution in the UK. Originally a network of radio stations, the BBC invested heavily in TV technology and began regular broadcasts in 1929, after several years of testing. The facilities were housed in the Alexandra Palace, a late 1800s building meant to be a “palace for the people” designed in contrast to the Crystal Palace in south London which had been built for the world’s fair. While in London, I studied the way the media responded to the arial bombings of the city during world war two, and the BBC is notably absent from the historic record, because television service was suspended during the war. Two days before the official declaration, TV service in the UK ended without warning as the government purportedly feared VHF signals would allow German bombers to find the city of London by night. All other forms of media were subject to censorship and government approval during the war, but this action clearly indicates a lower valuation of TV’s usefulness on the part of the British government, contrasted with the attitude HItler and Goebbels had towards TV as described by Williams in our most recent reading. Broadcasts resumed June 7th, 1946.

In the early years of television, there was real debate over airwave ownership, as many of our readings have indicated. In the US, individual, local stations launched broadcasts for the nascent medium, hoping to pique the interest of early adopters. These stations were bought up by larger bodies and their content was synchronized, thus creating the idea of a “network” of stations. Of course, these networks grew and some ceased to operate, leaving the US with 3 legacy TV networks and Fox, the newest addition to the network lineup. In the UK, this process was handled entirely differently. Arguably, this is a product of the UK’s small size (after all, the entire country is in one time zone and its population is significantly smaller than the US) but also, perhaps, different attitudes towards the role of TV in modern life. The BBC had been successful in radio broadcasts, and this model was adapted to work with TV as well. Through an innovative payment scheme, everyone in the UK who owns a TV must pay a flat license fee (£145.50 for color and £49.00 for black and white in 2012) and the revenue from this fee collection pays for public broadcasts in the following ways: (this was copied from Wikipedia, FYI)

50% – BBC One and BBC Two

15% – local TV and radio

12% – network radio

10% – digital (BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, CBBC, CBeebies)

10% – transmission costs and licence fee collection

3% – BBC Online, Ceefax, and Interactive Content (including and BBC Red Button)

That’s it; there is no PBS (a hybrid of public and private financing), and no C-SPAN. As a government organization, however, the BBC is beholden to all license payers to provide quality, educational programming, much in the way the major US networds were charged to do at several points in their history. What makes this different, however, is that the BBC was the sole TV network (really, the only TV channel) until 1955 when Independent TV (ITV) launched as a set of regional networks. The BBC did not and has not ever carried commercials, and there were serious concerns that ITV would revert to the “vulgar”ness of American Commercial TV, so an independent monitoring body was created to regulate it. Several years later, BBC 2 was launched as a UHF, higher quality channel that couldn’t be received by older TVs.

TV had a gradual but consistent start and “caught on” in the UK as it did elsewhere in the world in the middle of the 20th century. In 1966 the World Cup Game, broadcast on the BBC and ITV, garnered 32.3 million viewers, which is still a record. Color TV began around 1969. In 1982, Channel 4, another commercial TV station, was launched. In 1989 Sky (now BSkyB) launched as the first satellite TV service in the UK. Currently, with every broadcast subscription package available, there are only 14 true “British” channels (that is, stations that are not international in origin, mostly from the US, like CNN or MTV).

My experience living in the UK taught me how much the British value the BBC as a reliable, consistent, unbiased, and fair source for news and political arbitration. I don’t know many Americans who feel the same sort of reverence for any of the major networks or even for PBS. Even though it is government owned, the British don’t revile the BBC in the same way that the far right in the US is suspicious of PBS for receiving government funding. As a government organization, the BBC does a great deal to ensure fairness and that the airways remain “clean”. For each broadcast, they record the number of complaints received, and this number is used later to inform any action they may take against the offending program. A Halloween special called “Ghostwatch” from 1992 is often regarded as the most controversial program, receiving 2,215 complaints.

Given that for the first 50 years or so of broadcasting the BBC has been the sole content producer, British TV has evolved a particular style. Primetime Soap Operas have consistently been the most popular programs on British TV, with two shows, EastEnders and Coronation Street, being particularly noteworthy. These shows all adopt a similar style – the focus on a neighborhood or street in England and feature a large, diverse cast that changes constantly with each season. This sort of “fictional village” allows the writers to continually refresh their material without changing the familiar settings of the show. For example, in the 90s EastEnders introduced an Indian immigrant family who had moved into the neighborhood and attempted to dramatize the struggles they faced adapting to life in the UK. This earnest desire for “representational” or “progressive” programming is a hallmark of BBC shows, which genuinely never forget their responsibilities to educate and inform the people of the UK. This contrasts with the American attitude towards educational programming which was described by Keegan in an earlier post and also in our discussion in class. Furthermore, this is no trivial genre for the british. On Christmas day 1986, the now famous EastEnders episode when one character serves his wife, Angie, with divorce papers received 30.15 million viewers, OVER HALF of the total population of the UK at the time (the episode was shown four times that week, all included in viewship numbers, but still!). It is the #4 most watched program of all time in the UK, behind Princess Diana’s funeral, a world cup final, and a documentary about the royal family. One year later, an episode of Coronation Street received 26 million viewers, with a similar national population.

Make no mistake – these are daytime programs. They are created, much like American Soap Operas, to be watched by women at home during the day. There is something really remarkable to me in this – the fact that somehow this genere of TV, which shares many dramatic conventions with American Soaps, would be so popular. Britain also produces many more miniseries than the US, partly because of the style of their “seasons”. In the US, networks today aim for 22 episodes of a given show, with the goal of getting to 100 episodes, important for syndication, in as little time as possible. British networks never embraced the syndication model, and it shows. They don’t produce “seasons”, but rather “series”, which are the same conceptually but don’t necessarily air year after year – sometimes they take long breaks. The shows that do last, however, last FOREVER. EastEnders (which, insanely, airs 4 new episodes per week) has been on the air since 1985. Coronation Street has been around since 1960 – there are 7,908 episodes – and Doctor Who since 1963, Casualty (Their “ER”) since 1986. Other shows come and go in a more leisurely manner, often centering on performers who can carry the same character from a 6 episode miniseries to a 2 hour holiday special and back for reunion episodes indefinitely. The rigid “seasonal” structure that we have come to accept from American TV networks isn’t a factor in the UK.

It’s worth noting that, generally speaking, these programs aren’t very “good”. They aren’t sold internationally, for the most part (Downton Abbey, an ITV wildcard, changed everything when it became a massive hit in the US) and don’t really garner any income from DVD sales or other “re-watching” schemes. Their subject matter is frustratingly yet irrefutably “British”, and though I can’t really explain what that means exactly, I think it makes some sense. These shows require a particular attitude towards the role of entertainment to be enjoyed. Furthermore, they owe a good deal of their structure, pace, and design to Victorian novels and the British theatrical tradition, rather than Hollywood films, as, arguably, is the case with American TV. Furthermore, lacking that Hollywood studio system has spared UK networks from the conglomeration that has swept the US entertainment industry in the last 20 years.

Ultimately, the British regard TV as a public service, while Americans prefer to think it of entertainment. Just in the number of independent commissions that oversee its operation, the British have invested heavily their time and effort in ensuring that TV is at once impartial, unbiased, and educational. They have been saved (mostly) from the explosion of reality TV in the last decade because of a genuine concern that TV should serve the public interest, rather than that of network shareholders. On the other hand, there is something decidedly insular about the humor and drama of British TV, contrasted with the universality of the themes of heroism and adventure, or social/domestic dramatization that typify American TV and lead to its success internationally. Because at the root of this issue is the very real threat that American exports pose to this idyllic and somewhat naive attitude the British have towards TV. This was my greatest take away from my time abroad there – anxiety about the usurpation of historically British institutions like the press, their version of TV, and the NHS by cheaper American or international competitors. As far back as ITV’s launch in 1955, the fear that British TV would become “cheap” like American TV was palpable  With satellite and now IPTV, British households are plugged in more than ever to MTV, CNN, Comedy Central, FX, HBO, and the like through these stations’ international arms. These programs, in turn, are winning viewers away from the BBC. Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see if the somewhat unique, somewhat particular version of TV that has emerged organically in the UK will be able to stand up to increased competition from abroad.


** A few hours after I wrote this, this story was published by the New York Times and couldn’t be a better example of what I’m talking about:

Some noteworthy excerpts: “That decision, [not to air the episode] … is now the subject of three independent investigations.”, “What has deepened the revulsion is that this happened at the BBC, an institution so loved and trusted it is known as Auntie. This has cast a stain on the BBC.”, “BBC executives… have strenuously denied pressuring “Newsnight” to drop the Savile segment, an assertion backed by the “Newsnight” editor who made the decision, Peter Rippon. Although he told executives that he was working on the program, he said in a blog post, “I was told in the strongest terms that I must be guided by editorial considerations only and that I must not let any wider considerations about the BBC affect my judgment.””,

8 Responses to “TV in the UK”

  1. mikkikressbach October 18, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    I think you’ve done some really great work here! Would you mind sharing some of your sources? Additionally, this has me thinking quite a bit about how international television formats and genres can profoundly alter narrative structure. As you’ve touched on, British television tends to favor the “series” format that resembles the mini-series in the U.S. I think you’re right to point toward existing literary traditions, and this brings to question how a kind of historical tradition of narrative feeds into the construction of long form narrative television. For it seems that given their literary history, the British quickly moved into the long form structure, drawing from the novel in an attempt to recreate, or visualize its form (how does this change the form’s concern for suspense and drawing viewers back to the show?). I wonder how this can be compared with the development of the mini-series or made for TV movies in the U.S. (or even across Europe) that arose during the 1970s. And I think an interesting way to perhaps compare would be to look at how many of these British series are sold to PBS in the U.S. and thus marketed as adaptations of the “great works of literature.” (How does this compare to their marketing in the UK?) What status does this give British television in the US given the marketing campaign and channel? Lastly, many of these shows are now available for streaming online: how does this format perhaps change their relationship to the US public? Does this alter their status as perhaps an “elevated form of television?” (I know I certainly watch a lot more British TV given Netflix’s increasing supply.)

    Sorry one last point: I think a crucial point missing from your history is the fact that in recent years, America has been spent a great deal of time adapting British shows for American audiences. This includes everything from reality tv (which, from what I understand is actually incredibly popular over there, so I think I disagree with your above statement that’ve managed to avoid the reality fad), to immensely popular shows like The Office, Sherlock (well sort of with that terrible CBS show that came out this fall), Skins and The In Betweeners (stop trying, MTV). What does this say about the British format, genre or culture? And how do all of these elements change as they migrate overseas?

    • andrewkgreen October 18, 2012 at 10:18 am #

      Great comments.
      So a lot of the statistics I found about viewership, etc came from Wikipedia, and I’m not ashamed of that. While studying abroad I did a project on the show EastEnders and how the narrative has adapted in relation to changes in British life (i.e. the loss of empire, entrance into the EU, and so on) so most of the information there came from books. This is where the link between British narrative structure and Dickens novels and Oscar Wilde plays came from. You can argue some fo this about the US as well, but for both drama and sitcoms, the British take the domestic space as central to the story, often representing and insider’s perspective (literally from inside the home) of the struggle of a family and its members as they attempt to find their place within British society outside the home. EastEnders has really become canonized by the British so there is lots of scholarship about it that you can find in print.
      The history of the BBC comes from their website, but also from a remarkable show called “The Hour” that airs on BBC America and is at once super boring, with a rambling and disjointed plot, and also incredibly educational. It’s about the first serious news program that aired on the BBC just after programming had returned in the early 1950s. It’s worth noting too that the British public was still on food rations until July 1954, 14 years after the war began, so the resumption of TV broadcasts so early does, I think, say something about how TV’s value had changed during the war.
      The last type of research really came out of talking to people in Britain and seeing how they regarded their television offerings. The article I posted noted that people refer to the BBC as “auntie”, sometimes as “the beeb”. Williams mentions in his book that the early years of the BBC used a “ruling class” accent to confer authority and gravitas to the viewing public, often relying on an unseen narrator to describe news events. There really is no monolithic network in the US to compare it to, but in the UK when someone mentions they saw something on TV, you can be sure they mean the BBC and not some other channel. If it is another channel, they make sure to let you know.

  2. fereiramaria13 October 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    I agree with Mikki that one of the major developments in recent years has been the crossover/adaptation of British TV into America, and the significance of several British programs within certain American socialities. She mentioned a lot of them (The In Betweeners, Skins, The Office, etc.), and they seem to make up an interesting point of American television, that studios would be adapting these shows. It’s just interesting to consider, and I wonder about the reasoning behind it. There has also been a series of successes of British television in America. I’m thinking of Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and Dr. Who. In a strange way, these shows seems to occupy the same level of significance as other shows-that-you-simply-must-see, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. They have a certain cultural value in America as shows worth watching. This is another topic that I would really like to explore, why these shows succeed here. On the one hand, they have the obvious advantage over other international shows in that they don’t have a language barrier to overcome, but I’d like to know if there are other reasons at play.

  3. mikkikressbach October 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    Thanks for sharing those sources; your research in the UK sounds fascinating. (Why so harsh on The Hour? I really enjoyed that series, particularly for the quasi-educational aspect you mentioned!) This brings me to a discussion that I think you, and Maria (?) are alluding to in your posts: mainly the issue of class and how that has had profound effects on representing life in both the US and the UK. Frankly, this is subject that cannot be ignored whenever discussing British culture. This comes up directly in questions of adaptations of British shows (mainly how they change, and how this seems to effect comedy in particular) and the importation of shows to channels like PBS. Speaking from my own experience, I know I derive a great deal of pleasure from viewing a show like Downton Abbey which luxuriates in old money and setting. Is there perhaps a different form of escapism happening here? And is it perhaps specific to British TV as a whole? (or even longstanding cultural or literary traditions?)

    • vhas October 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

      I think the comment about escapism is interesting because it made me think about the way we view what we see on television in relation to our own lives. An earlier discussion in class about some of the reality tv series out there brought up the idea that we like to place ourselves in a higher position compared to these hoarders or housewives, that at least our lives are better that the ones we’re seeing. When it comes to these fictionalized dramas,then, are we really just immersing ourselves in this unattainable fantasy, frequently one of British high culture? Maybe we tend to self-reflect less when we’re watching tv of a different culture?

  4. cfwilliamsuc October 19, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    An excellent post on television in the United Kingdom, I thought I might add my own thoughts on the subject.

    As you say, the BBC is indisputably the most important television broadcaster in the country, and yet one may argue the second most important is not the second oldest network ITV, but rather the News Corp. owned BSkyB, operatior of the Sky Digital satellite service. A quick overview; with a limited cable and fibre optic system (which as is often the case on the local level in the US, is provided through one major company in England, with only one other alternative available to a very small subset of the population), and only one
    Sky built itself up through a series of aggressive maneuvers, but also a series investments into what would become Premier League Football (soccer), Sky ultimately became supremely successful and a major influence over the landscape of British television. Furthermore, Sky has a sizable stake in ITV, has partnered with BBC on what is now the terrestrial broadcasting system of the UK, Freeview, and has effectively has control over the distribution of the country’s fourth biggest broadcaster, Channel 4. Finally, it is also important to note that Sky created and maintains the largest, most powerful sports station network, home box office and rights to a sizable amount of hit American TV shows, as well as holding the number two news network of the country. In my own terms, Sky in the UK serves as a mix of DirecTV and Dish network given the lack of alternatives, ESPN, HBO, CNN (for Sky News does not get quite the same degree of accusations of political bias as its sister site Fox News, though such claims do occur), and frankly a host of other networks.

    That extremely abbreviated overview serves to illustrate what influence Sky has had over the landscape. The introduction of hit American shows onto its own channels, most notably Fox channel mainstays such as the Simpsons, were met with much success in the early days. In the last decade or so each of the terrestrial networks developed entire digital channels to fulfilling similar roles as Sky’s flagship, Sky1, in targeting the younger crowd with a mix of sitcoms comedies and dramas, many if not most of which are imported from the US, (the channels are BBC3, ITV 2, E4 and arguably 5 USA).

    It is true that these channels are not as successful as their terrestrial sister sites, even given the leveling of the playing field with the introduction of Freeview which made all of these channels equally accessible to the entire country following the digital switchover. BBC has reduced its investments in BBC3, and questions have constantly been raised about the profitability of ITV2 and E4. Nevertheless, the ratings of the traditional stations, and Sky1, have remained higher. However, these channels did manage to attract a sizable number of the younger population of the country showing a shift of interests to the American shows. Perhaps not enough to be considered a full Americanization of the British youth’s interests, but enough to be considerable. The fact that Sky remains free of the public service requirements of other networks has also been a sore point, with Channel 4 in particular calling for a change in such regulations, and the BBC constantly recalibrating its scheduling, to the point where the four main BBC channels no longer show children’s programming at any point in the day, such programs being relegated to the dedicated children’s channels. My point is, Sky is serving as a lightning rod for change; after 8 years living in England I believe wholeheartedly that for the most part England sees television as a service, but the commercial nature of Sky is making it difficult for those channels with the public service mandate to compete as effectively as they would like, and it is changing the mindset of the public, ever so slightly, to one in which entertainment is the major purpose of television.

  5. alessiofranko October 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    I found your discussion UK TV shows that never disappear very intriguing. It seems like American TV stations are constantly seeking to air new shows. Shows are always pushing one another off the schedule. The good ones get bought by other stations to be rerun, and there are many stations that, embracing the Nick at Nite model, mostly air these popular shows as hand-me-downs. It seems like a very important part of the “Britishness” of these long-running BBC shows is that there is a consensus that these shows are, if not good, wholesome and worthy of their viewership. I can’t help but wonder how much the size difference between America and the UK has to do with America’s inability to arrive at this kind of consensus as a nation. The U.S. has more people and thus more culturally distinct regions, making it difficult for a national network to meet the interests of all of these regions. I find it notable that though the vast majority of popular shows in the U.S. are firmly set in either a real city or a fake city in a real state (Seinfeld, King of the Hill, and The Wire, to name only a fraction of those that follow this pattern, are very much shows ABOUT their settings and deliberately aim to portray life there), the longest running American TV Show, the Simpsons has a rather nebulous setting. Many U.S. states have a city called Springfield, making the Simpsons about the broader American experience rather than a regional one.

    • kebullock October 21, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

      I like the point you make about the size of the U.S. versus the United Kingdom especially when it is considered alongside a previous comment about the recent interest in adapting British shows for the U.S. Shows that are directed at a smaller audience are able to be more direct and defined in their goals. Even if they are originally aimed at a European audience, someone in the United States will still recognize the clarity in the style making it an effective narrative even if it is not directed at them. When the U.S. chooses to adapt British television, they would almost definitely have to generalize aspects of the show in order to please a greater number of people. Because of this, it is unclear to me what the U.S. television producers hopes to accomplish by generalizing these stories?

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