11/07/2011 11:22 BST | Updated 09/09/2011 06:12 BST

Why Can't I Watch The American TV I Want To When I Want To?

I've just ordered a bunch of DVDs on Amazon. Two seasons of Party Down, the first series of Parks & Recreation. Been wanting to watch them for ages.

Never heard of them? Not surprising really, considering unless you are something of an American telly nerd like me, they haven't entered into the British TV atmosphere. A shame really, since the former - a comedy set amongst a group of wedding caterers created by Veronica Mars overlord Rob Thomas and starring Glee's Jane Lynch - was a critical hit in the U.S. Meanwhile the latter, a subtle mockumentary in the style of The Office about civil servants which stars Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live), is due to enter its fourth season later this year.

First, let me declare something: I'll almost always choose an American show over a British one and actively search the US network schedules and entertainment sites for something that tickles my fancy.

But the lot of being a massive American television fan in the UK like myself is a strange one. If you don't want to risk tangling with the authorities by torrent-ing shows (and obviously I don't), you either have to cross your fingers a British channel buys it, or wait until something pops up on import DVD so you can order it at a cost and often way after the end of the original transmission date, thanks to complex syndication deals and the like.

Take two of the shows I've mentioned already - Veronica Mars only made brief appearances on E4 at random moments in the middle of the day. Saturday Night Live, despite its comic pedigree and star wattage doesn't get a look in here (apart from very old eps on Sky Arts).

The internet has made it worse. Now anyone reading an showbiz website might accidentally happen upon a twist or storyline which ruins their enjoyment of a particular programme. When I liveblogged the Lost finale last year, I was relieved and impressed Sky 1 chose to simulcast it with the US, lest I find out beforehand they really were robots from the future.

Okay, so these shows cost money. Which most British TV companies don't have. But why buy a generic show like S%#$ My Dad Says, which got canned after one run, when Parks... and the like already have demonstrable appeal? Especially when the former William Shatner-starrer echoed the cruddy sitcoms of the Seventies rather than those of the more progressive, sharper post-Office universe?

Part of the problem is a lot of the purchasing is done on blind faith at the so-called LA Screenings, which are put on for foreign buyers by U.S. networks in the spring. Channels are so keen to get their hands on the hits while keeping the costs down that frequently they're tricked into buying by pseudo-buzz. Drama Lone Star attracted lots of attention for its pilot and was bought by Sky 1. It was cancelled in America after two episodes.

Similarly, TV execs can point to several American shows which failed on these shores, showing a smash hit in the US does not guarantee one here. Seinfeld - one of the biggest shows ever over there - is a case in point.

And it's true British audiences are vague in their desires. They'll happily watch that Friends episode where Ross and Rachel kiss for the twentieth time, but when it comes to primetime, they'd rather decide between two dancing dog acts than laugh at a sophisticated American sitcom.

It doesn't help that the mainstream press are notoriously bad at championing excellent, but little-seen Yank shows before they've already gathered momentum. Much of this is because TV writers simply don't have the time or resources to scour the schedules for undiscovered gems. They rely on channels' press materials and oftentimes the cable providers are the source of their own undoing. I only found out about Parenthood on 5* because I was looking for it and happened to stumble across an internet forum. Community - another show I was hoping came to these shores - launched earlier this year on music channel Viva. Barely anyone noticed.

On top of all this, as a consumer we're hamstrung not just by the whims of TV bods, but also companies like iTunes and Hulu, which won't allow someone in this country to watch - or even buy - episodes which can be purchased by American customers immediately after they are broadcast.

Why not? I don't have to get them for free. I just want the choice. The ability to say 'okay, I really want to watch that programme about rabbit detectives who live on Mars, but I can't wait for 5* to pull their finger out, so I'm happy to series pass it on iTunes.'

Maybe I should really be out exercising or learning to speak Spanish, rather than worrying about staying up to date with 30 Rock. Still, there's some great still-untapped stuff out there. Go and find it.

Then bung me the DVD when you've finished.


Friday Night Lights - ITV4 occasionally put episodes of this out at two in the morning. A shame, because its sophisticated take on small town life and high school could and should have torn up the E4 schedules.

Community - try and get a hold of this excellent sitcom which stars Chevy Chase as part of an ensemble of losers at a community college. The first season recently showed here to little fanfare on Viva. The second series is supposed to be even better.

Parenthood - the first season has just come to an end on 5* (bravo to them for picking it up) and is a marvellous take on the family drama, with a cast who emanate genuine chemistry. Let's hope the next run gets picked up too. Again, an all-round show which would be perfect in a primetime slot on one of the main channels.


Louie - this domestic sitcom starring stand-up Louis C.K. broadcasts on FX in the States, looks brilliant and is salivated over by critics. Ricky Gervais is a fan (and even does a cameo). I sincerely doubt it'll ever find its way to Britain. Now, there's a challenge commissioning people...