Are British TV Shows More Intellectual Than Their American Counterparts?

Are British TV Shows More Intellectual Than Their American Counterparts?

Is British television in general pegged to a higher intellectual level than American television? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Robert Frost, Instructor and Flight Controller at NASA:

In this discussion, a line needs to be drawn between broadcast television and television from subscription premium networks. The American premium networks like HBO have dramatically changed television. In the late 1990s, HBO produced Sex and the City and The Sopranos, two series that simply couldn't be produced or aired by the broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, or Fox. The shows were expensive, mature, and non-commercial. The subscription nature of HBO meant they were series that were controlled by their creators/writers (Darren Star and David Chase, respectively) instead of by nervous and fickle advertisers. And they were hugely successful. That has allowed a rapid evolution of television into a place where the writing and stories are now consistently better than the writing and stories of the cinema. The world has turned upside-down in Hollywood. Britain doesn't really have its own similar premium networks, although you may notice some of your favorite HBO series like Band of Brothers and Rome are BBC co-productions.

But this is still a phenomenon with which American broadcast television still struggles. Broadcast television is made for the masses, and trying to please everyone while creating art is a folly. It results in television that usually plays it safe; it doesn't experiment much, it doesn't ask many tough questions, it is often tempted to play to the lowest common denominator, and it lives in fearing of short attention span viewers changing to one of the 500 other channels on their TV. British broadcast television isn't immune from these problems, but the BBC manages to ameliorate the problems by not being advertiser funded and by having less competition. They don't have to worry that if one of their shows exhibits something controversial that a group like One Million Moms will harass Proctor and Gamble and Coca-Cola into pulling their advertising from the network.

The BBC is chartered by the government. Its charter is to:

  • Sustain citizenship and civil society
  • Promote education and learning
  • Stimulate creativity and cultural excellence
  • Represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities
  • Bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK

The FCC also put some requirements upon networks that use the public airwaves in America, but rather than applying to the entirety of content, they merely require the presence of some content that sustains citizenship and promotes education. CBS is required to have its evening news, but is free to put humanity-decaying crap like Big Brother on right after that news (note: Britain had its own crappy Big Brother, seven years before America did, but it airs on the commercial and generally crappy Channel 4).

British television shows also benefit from short seasons, a benefit shared with the cable networks previously mentioned. American broadcast television has a standard of 22-24 episodes a year, while British TV and cable do 6-12. It is a lot easier to put some intellectual thought into your stories when you aren't pumping them out on an assembly line. People making broadcast TV are always behind schedule and are utterly fried by the end of the season. They desperately need to reduce the time and effort to write each show, so using simple formulaic scripts is of value to them.

So, there are some architectural factors that do encourage British broadcast television to aim a little higher, intellectually, than American broadcast television. But there's also a difference evident in the artists involved.

Let's take Monty Python's Flying Circus as an example. Michael Palin and Terry Jones attended the University of Oxford. John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman attended the University of Cambridge. These guys wrote a lot of television and their writing was no doubt influenced by their classical educations.

When we watch a comedy like Blackadder, co-written by Oxford alumni Richard Curtis and co-written and starring fellow Oxford alumni Rowan Atkinson, we find a show willing to go low with fart jokes as long as it can go high with jokes about obscure Elizabethan poets, 18th century parliamentarians, and 19th century philosophers. An entire episode focuses on Samuel Johnson, famed for publishing a dictionary in 1755.

The American equivalent of the BBC is PBS. PBS gets one-tenth as much money from the U.S. government as the BBC gets from the British government. If you've watched PBS, you've probably noticed that much of its great programming is imported from Britain. Most Masterpiece Theatre and most Masterpiece Mystery shows are from Britain. They aren't all from the BBC; for example, the most successful show on PBS has been the ITV series Downton Abbey.

The best comparisons to address the question are comparisons of similar types of shows. While America created the smart police show with Hill Street Blues, the average American broadcast television police show is clearly lower-brow than the average British police show. The American show will usually focus on a handsome or beautiful and brilliant detective who isn't very introspective, lives a lifestyle way beyond their paycheck, chases down criminals while dressed in designer clothes, and be a marksman that over the run of the series will probably shoot and kill more than a dozen people. If they have a background before becoming a cop, it was probably special forces. The British show will feature a rumpled and wrinkled detective who is plagued by doubt, lives in a tiny dingy flat, chases shots after beer while dressed in a twenty-year-old suit, and never have touched a gun. Their weapons will be determination and reason. If they have a background before becoming a cop, it was probably studying opera or theology at Cambridge or Oxford.

All of that said, don't interpret it to say British TV is a paragon of high culture. It can out-low-culture American TV, and quite often. I challenge anyone to identify an American broadcast TV show as low-brow as either The Young Ones or Bottom.


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