Craig Taphorn is one of K7’s US correspondents, and when he recently relocated to the UK to study we asked for his insight into the differences between broadcast TV on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are his thoughts.
This is most noticeable to me, as the US system is almost entirely commercial. Advertising pays the bills in America, so you are often bombarded by ads for anything and everything under the sun multiple times during every show. For the most part, I’ve found adverts in the UK are discreet, and broadcast in small doses. Not counting the BBC, of course, which doesn’t broadcast ads at all. And that brings us to…
The concept of the licence fee boggles most American’s minds when they hear about it.
The TV licence fee
The concept of the licence fee boggles most American’s minds when they hear about it. What do you mean, I have to buy a licence to watch TV? It sounds crazy, but after living here and experiencing all the BBC has to offer, I am firmly in the pro-fee camp. Whenever I hear Brits complain about having to pay it, I take pleasure in reminding them what they get for their £145.50 per year. 12 ad-free television channels (BBC 1-4, BBC HD, BBC News, BBC Sport, CBBC and CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, and BBC World News), 17 different specialist radio stations (Radio1, 1Extra, Radio 2-4, 4Extra, Radio 5, 5Live, Radio 6, Asian, Ulster, Scotland, Wales, Cymru, World Service, Foyle, and local radio all over the country), and dedicated online services like the BBC website, iPlayer and Red Button. To my eyes, it’s a bargain.
US and UK television both trade in much the same genres, but there’s one format that is a well established tradition in Britain that has yet to make its mark in the US: comedy panel shows. Shows such as Have I Got News For You?, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Eight Out Of Ten Cats, QI, Would I Lie To You?, Mock The Week, Room 101 and more are wonderful examples of how comedy can both entertain and educate at the same time. The British sense of humour, with its quick witted off-the-cuff repartee, seems to thrive in this format which may explain its localised success.
Shorter episode runs
The UK approach to the length of a series seems driven more by the story being told than the number of weeks in a pre-determined schedule that need to be filled. I think this gives UK dramas a distinct advantage as writers working on British shows don’t have to try and figure out how to extend a story arc for 22 to 24 episodes. It makes their work sharper, and more to the point. US shows have long seasons due to the nature of the business, where the traditional television season runs from autumn to spring, and shows must expand to fill that space.Thankfully, that tradition seems to be dying out as US broadcast networks are moving more in line with the UK, as well as most cable networks, by opting for shorter seasons or splitting seasons up into smaller blocks.
Comedy panel shows are yet to make their mark in the US.
In case you think there’s nothing but praise, there are some things about British TV that I wasn’t so keen on. In the US we have a decentralised commercial affiliate system, where the local television stations in your market offer local programming in addition to the network feed from the Big 6 networks. When I first moved to the UK, I was amazed that in order to get any local news about the city, I had to wait until the last 5 minutes after the evening national BBC or ITV newscasts and catch the local updates. Woe to you if you miss those, as they are one of the few opportunities to get the news. In the US, local television is much more local in its output, with at least four substantial regional newscasts per day, up to an hour in length. You simply can’t avoid local coverage, unlike Britain where you have to actively seek it out.
I thought that UK television wouldn’t be so different to US, but there are notable differences. That’s healthy, and I hope that US and UK television continue to transfer ideas, stars and great stories back and forth across the Atlantic.