TV UK, 20 August

Anti-Americanism is consigning shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to the graveyard slot.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

It only comes around once in a blue moon and you have to watch it at weird and wonderful hours, but it’s well worth it. No, not the Olympics, but a new series of The Sopranos.

I’m not as big a fan of American TV as the usual occupant of this column. He is sadly having to watch lots of that poor substitute for television – theatre – back in his home country at the moment. But any nation as wealthy and as devoted to the medium as the USA is going to produce some real pearls. Unfortunately, too many of them have been put before Channel 4 executives, who are clearly swine.

How else to explain the fact that they have launched the new series of The Sopranos at 11pm? This is no aberration – someone at the station clearly thinks it’s funny to put Six Feet Under in the graveyard slot, too.

Admittedly Channel 4 put another high-profile US series in the more prestigious 10pm slot before Six Feet Under. But unfortunately it’s Average Joe, the one where a top-looking chick has to choose a suitable mate from a bunch of dorks.

Meanwhile, in primetime, Channel 4 was showing yet another property-and-lifestyle show (Location, Location, Location), the scatologically bad You Are What You Eat, and a second series of the show that takes modern schoolkids back to the secondary education of days gone by, That’ll Teach ‘Em.

This way Channel 4 can proclaim its commitment to original, homegrown content – even if ‘original’ is clearly now a synonym for ‘formulaic’. Much as I would like to beat upon Channel 4, it isn’t unique in its attitude to quality American programming.

Once upon a time, British TV embraced American TV with open arms. That’s why we can think fondly of Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, and the rest. Not all of it was high art, but it was entertaining nonetheless. (We’ll quickly skip past The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and The Dukes of Hazzard, if you don’t mind.)

But it was decided that too much American content was A Bad Thing. So good American shows started to get shunted to late-night slots. Few people in Britain would be able to wax lyrical about Seinfeld or The Larry Sanders Show – both dumped in the outer limits of TV-land by the BBC.

Then along came Channel 4. It started out with a mission to be truly alternative, which meant lots of worthy but dull shows. When it was discovered that nobody liked watching them, the channel had the whizzo idea of buying well-made, grown-up TV shows from America like ER, Ally McBeal and Frasier. Suddenly Channel 4 was being watched, and it was the coolest of the network stations.

Shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and another Channel 4 victim, NYPD Blue, are exactly the kind of thing that TV executives always say they want to show and produce. So why be so disrespectful to them now? It can’t be money – executives are still buying these shows after all. And the newest of the network stations, Five, has made great play of showing series like CSI, Law and Order and The Shield at times when people might watch them – even if it’s one after the other on a Saturday night.

There are two trends here. One is a kind of snobbishness, mixed with a little anti-Americanism, which says that we must produce the bulk of our own content, and it doesn’t matter what it is so long as it’s British. The result has been both the BBC and Channel 4 (and increasingly, everyone else) producing hours and hours of mindless programming about painting, decorating, gardening and cooking.

The other is the idea that most people would rather watch cheap and cheerful dross rather than really good comedy and drama, wherever it is produced. No sign then of the Reithian maxim, ‘Don’t give them what they want, give them something better’. TV executives think: ‘of course, we appreciate The Sopranos, but they (ie, the general public) just won’t “get it”.’ Yet this assumption ignores the fact that these shows top the TV ratings among our supposedly unsophisticated American cousins. Moreover, when the BBC does produce high-quality drama, such as Waking the Dead, viewers don’t seem to have any problems getting it.

This is not an appeal to go back to the days when American TV seemed to dominate our schedules – there’s plenty of crap produced in the USA, too. But surely it would be better to worry about the quality of the programmes rather than their country of origin? Then I might not fall asleep trying to watch my favourite shows.

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Topics Culture


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