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How Does The UK Television Industry Equal Its US Counterpart?

21/11/2016 12:35

Most things are bigger in America: portion sizes, buildings, roads, the TV industry. Bigger, however, does not always mean better. The problem is, in the case of the television industry, it does.

There is a conveyor belt of high quality television coming out of the US at the moment, and there has been for a while. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead have all built up followers in the manner you would expect of a Premier League football team - or should I say NFL team?

The question is, why is the US producing such popular television with such consistency, and more importantly, what can the UK do to raise its game?

The issue is not one of talent. The array of British actors who occupy leading roles in some of the biggest television series ever made - of both US and UK origin - is evidence enough. But for every Damian Lewis, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of aspiring actors, writers and producers struggling to get a break. The UK is brimming with talented, ambitious individuals. I have seen it myself - not just in major shows but in film school and at industry events.

The issue facing these individuals, in particular in the UK, is the industry's adversity to risk. It seems to me that the industry sees young people as a problem; in my view, they're the solution. There is so much going on in the world at the moment that young people are passionate about: Brexit, LGBT rights, feminism. There is so much to inspire the power of storytelling.

In 2010, a 22-year-old American writer won the narrative feature prize at the SXSW Film Festival for independent film, Tiny Furniture, based on the struggle young people go through when they move back home following university. Six months later, Lena Durham was offered total creative control of a TV series by HBO. Girls is now a BAFTA, Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning series, set to air its sixth and final season next year. In my view, Durham would not be where she is today had she begun her career in the UK.

Granted, taking a risk is an easier thing to do for a major US network than it is for the BBC or ITV - their respective budgets are barely comparable. But there are things that the industry as a whole in this country could do to start bridging that gap.

For example, public service broadcasters (PSBs) still receive no payment from pay TV platforms, such as Sky, for the use of their services. The UK is one of only a very small handful of major markets where this is still the case - it certainly isn't in the US. That surely cannot be right? The 'terrestrial channels' are the most watched channels irrespective of which platform people are using. What would happen to Sky's sales figures if they suddenly announced they would no longer be able to broadcast the BBC, ITV or Channel 4?

The value of the PSBs, both to the public and the industry, is emphasised further by regulation stating that they must hold prominent slots on electronic programme guides - ie remain the first four channels. This is not the case in the States.

The UK also holds the often overlooked advantage of being a single time zone. This enables channels to create a 'national moment' - a concept amplified by the noise of social media. Reality TV, soaps and national favourites such as Downton Abbey can all dominate ratings, leading to millions of people all doing the same thing, at the same time - and all thanks to PSBs.

Those same pay TV platforms could also take a look at their own priorities. Sky's programming budget is £4.9billion. Of that, just £600m is invested in original, British shows. Granted, it is something the company is aware of, and addressing, but we will have to wait and see whether words turn into actions.

Despite the brilliant experience I have had in London, where I studied Film Producing, my dream is to build a film career in the States. It's not a slight on the education I received - I think the UK is a great place to study filmmaking - but I believe the US is a better place for young filmmakers to look for a job. Unfortunately, for the time-being at least, bigger remains better.

Gemma Scarascia studied Practical Filmmaking at Met Film School. Her graduate project, titled Flatmate, won Best Student Project at the Web Series Festival Global and has been nominated at numerous other events, including the New York Television Film Festival.

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