It’s the start of the year, and the big cable networks are parading their ‘coming this year’ content to win the war for ratings. There are some big shows being wheeled out, but here in the UK we often have to wait ages for the some of the best US shows to reach our networks, and many others don’t make it across the pond at all. Why is that?
The answer is of course, as always, money. Presumably the top rated, most current shows are more expensive. So I could end the article here, but that would be no fun. Instead, I claim my right to moan!
One of the greatest strengths of the most successful sitcom in history, Seinfeld, was that it managed to sneak edgy and amoral storylines into primetime airspace. It looked like a normal sitcom but it pushed the boundaries as far as it could. When the most famous episode, The Contest, was broadcast in its home country, it was the archetypal water-cooler moment. But over here, shown as it was at around midnight, an episode in which all the starring characters wager on who can go the longest without masturbating caused barely a ripple. Other comedies such as Larry Sanders and Arrested Development were both buried in the UK schedules despite being critically acclaimed, and properly publicised in the US.
With the Paramount channel things picked up for the UK audience. We could now see the big US shows at reasonable times. There were several repeats of Seinfeld in its entirety, as well as Adult Swim and 30 Rock. The early Paramount Comedy days also made us aware that shows like Cheers and MASH had not aged at all well. More recently Paramount has become Comedy Central and FX has weighed in with heavy competition, and the top rated shows US comedy shows have become staples over here.
Possibly the most successful has been the US version of The Office. Nobody thought the Gervais/Merchant classic could be improved upon, but improve it they did, adding countless extra dimensions and making the comedy about all the characters, rather than just a few. And rather than limiting to 6 episodes a season like we do over here , one US season contains more episodes than were made in total in the UK. But the problem with the American Office for a UK audience is the delay in it reaching our screens. At the moment, season 6 is airing on Comedy Central– with season 8 running in the states. And it’s been that way all along, with us often 3 and 4 seasons behind.
30 Rock seems to have a shorter time-lag, but it’s still months behind the USA, and in this age of we-want-it-and-we-know-how-to-get-it-now, any kind of delay is enough to push the audience into bypassing the network completely. The demographic that enjoy edgy American shows are the very people who won’t think twice about hitting the file-sharing sites. Comedy Central seems to be coming round to this very idea and has started showing South Park episodes “Within days of the states”, including this statement in their trailers with the clear subtext being “Please don’t download it, watch it on our network”.
Then there are comedies that tragically don’t see the light of day here at all. Community, Parks and Recreation and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are all cult hits in the US, but have never been broadcast in the UK. It’s testament to the shift in how we consume entertainment that despite them not being available on our TV networks, all three shows have strong fan-bases here.
Drama shows often meet the same fate. AMC’s Breaking Bad won critical acclaim for its blend of drama, thrills, comedy and almost unbearable tension. Seasons 1 and 2 were shown over here on FX but that was it. It just stopped. There have been two seasons since then, with another in the pipeline, but as things stand, they’re not going to be shown in the UK.
Walking Dead was shown very close to the states but True Blood was months behind and many fans had already seen each ‘new’ season by the time it was shown here.
In our impatient, technology-driven culture, delaying the broadcast, even by a few days, of shows that impatient, technology-savvy consumers enjoy is akin to sailing around the coast of Somalia in a boat flying a banner that says “we have no weapons but loads of gold – all pirates welcome”.
When discussing the spending of the BBC licence fee, it was always seen as a negative to be importing shows. Synonymous with quality was the fact that a show was made by the BBC; anything else was just filler. But that’s changed. With the BBC3 schedule being comprised of nigh on 100% of bad programmes, with the exception of maybe Him & Her and episodes of Family Guy that we’ve all seen a hundred times – perhaps the BBC should just give up and buy some good stuff. And we don’t mean Pan Am!
Obviously, British networks can’t possibly afford to import all the most celebrated shows at the height of their popularity. But perhaps the problem could be approached differently. Maybe the American networks who own the rights to these shows could lower the premium and bank on the extra revenue from DVD sales and other merchandise.
But I’m not a network executive or an economist so I can’t really comment. I’ll just carry on flying to America, watching my favourite shows and flying home again in time for bed. I don’t know what a torrent is.
I have to confess that I have no idea if the smash-hit US comedy, Friends suffered any delay because, to be honest, I don’t remember a time when Friends wasn’t broadcast around the clock on UK screens. All day. Every day.