The Thick Of It creator Armando Ianucci has told UK to become more aggressive in their programming, for fear of being overtaken by the US in terms of quality TV. Is he right though?
In his speech to at the annual BAFTA TV lectures the creator of comedies like I’m Alan Partridge and The Day Today on Monday spoke on how the rise premium cable channels is propelling American television past that of the UK creatively.
Ianucci told the crowd “British television was once the most admired, the most copied and influential in the world. I say 'once' because I think over the past five, maybe 10, years we've stopped thinking that. We've been surprised and gob smacked by how good American telly has become.
“Bringing cinema production values to the small screen and attracting cinema talent. America's best writers and directors have been enticed to the longer-form TV drama and as a consequence have given us the likes of The Wire, Damages, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. Some of these series have been called the greatest television ever made. Which is silly, because that's Breaking Bad.”
While The Newsroom hasn’t been met with universal acclaim, the fact that HBO enticed Aaron Sorkin back to TV, despite the interests of several movie projects says something quite profound. More and more big screen actors are coming back to TV and more movie moguls and creative are getting their hands dirty in the small screen world.
Ianucci also talks about those working for premium channels in the US having more creative control, which, again, really cannot be argued against. Take American Horror Story for an example, a show broadcast on the FX network in America. Under the control of Glee creator Ryan Murphy, the show started weird and simply kept going down the rabbit hole of insanity. Even the weirdest of British execs wouldn’t have signed off on those scripts.
Let’s not all get down about the state of UK television though. The best comedy shows from America are often under-viewed in their homeland and are clearly influenced by British comedy Community and Arrested Development are clear examples of this, both full of the referential, surrealist humour that has for long defined UK comedy.
The steady stream of UK comedy wanting to be remade by US executives may be slowing up, but it’s still there. No such desire to mercilessly recycle American hits exists over here.
It’s only when drama gets brought up that America really starts to throw the big punches. Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones are simply the tip of an ever increasing iceberg of brilliant TV on US premium cable.
The major networks though are still far behind. While they may occasionally find themselves a gem of a show (like Lost and 24) the American obsession for ratings leads to shows growing unneeded seasons and playing to the lowest denominator just to secure viewers. There is a complete lack of faith from American producers for the networks that can kill brilliant shows that simply don’t set the graphs ablaze before they even get going. Firefly, Terriers and Awake are all shows that have suffered this fate.
While British TV is still revered overseas (just look at the love for Doctor Who, Sherlock and Downton Abbey across the Atlantic for proof) it's not to the level it used to be.
As Ianucci says, UK’s TV was once the envy of everyone else. Now the influx and influence of the mainstream American shows is absolutely beyond question. The American sitcom became the dominant player in the market over here, despite the fact that they were generally not as good as a lot of UK’s home grown product. US dramas like CSI started shaping UK programming, with the rise of Silent Witness a direct result.
Britain can, and does still put out phenomenal shows like Misfits, This Is England and The Shadow Line, show’s that easily match up to giants from America. If rival cable companies to HBO such as AMC and FX continue to grow in the US, the sheer amount of great TV could overpower the UK though.
Risks must be taken. As long as Channel 4 keep taking risks when it comes to comedy, we’ll continue to get brilliant shows like The Inbetweeners, The I.T Crowd and Peep Show. As long as all three channels keep getting the best talent involved in drama, the UK can hold its own there too.
Britain may no longer be head and shoulders above the rest in terms of TV, but in this new global media world, the rise of America and Scandinavia can only make everyone keep being at their absolute best.
FemaleFirst Cameron Smith