Sunday, May 13, 2007

Born In The USA

Okay hands up those who prefer watching American fare like 'Lost' or 'CSI' or 'Battlestar Gallactica' or 'The Sopranos' or 'House' or even cancelled shows like 'Arrested Development' or 'Firefly' or reruns of Frasier and Seinfeld rather than watch home grown fare?

Mmmmmmmmmmmnnn? Most of you. Interesting. That is the dolemma [pun intended] the UK networks face. Because while they are chugging out lowest common denominator user friendly pap the majority of the audience are looking at the goodies on offer on multi channel and voting with their index fingers.

In the rush to give 'Middle England ' something that a half decent share will watch [half decent by today's standards] the networks are losing sight of the fact that TV is a global business. Something the Americans learned some time ago. Big Budget production values both on and off the screen coupled with great storytelling and a cut throat sense of what works and what doesn't is why we even have people high up in the BBC saying they prefer to watch American shows [ no name no pack drill]

And yes, we see the cream not the crap and yes they make mistakes, like cancelling Arrested Development and Firefly! But take a look at say ....the BBC. Not reliant on adverstising and having squillions a year come into it's coffers and yet what's the best they can come up with for a new prime time series? A tired old police procedural format like Holby Blue. And it will chug along with it's five million viewers and some execs and writers and production folk will be in a job for a few years. Big wow.

I know, because I've written for both, that two of the mainstays of UK Drama, Casualty and The Bill sell to about half a dozen countries, max. The reason why they don't sell to more countries while the best American shows are truly global? Because they are too parochial, as in UK exec parochial. They are dull, slow and boring. You'd have to fast forward Casualty on your VCR to make it anything like E.R. The Bill is like NYPD Blue on tranquilisers. But they get solid viewing figures here. And solid viewing figures are the Holy Grail for execs. The rest of the world thinks they are crap but so long as 5 to 8 million Middle Englanders religiously tune in they will keep being made. Because the networks have given up on absolute numbers, instead relying on share to judge a show's worth . 30% share is a success. The fact that 30% of a piss poor pot is actually quite meaningless is neither here nor there to them and their salaries.

That is a little harsh. They have a mandate they have to work to, what with watersheds and diversity issues and budgets that are heavily weighted towards non creative infrastructure. But it can come as no surprise that the best current American shows have succesful movie people behind them, because sucessful movie people know that the key is 'a good story well told' Something that I think gets lost in UK TV when 'on screen on time and on budget' is the watchword of the execs rather than 'is this actually any good?'


Good Dog said...

ED, can I just say: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

I don't get it. I don't get how bloggy folk - especially the wannabe TV writers - can say that they love these UK dramas. I don't get it how audiences can watch this slow, dreary nonsense, unless they're watching it to save on the prescription charge for sleeping pills.

I put on my latest entry that the reason Holby Blue is so dreary is because it is filmed in the Casualty "house style" which has spent 21 years perfecting the art of "motionless motion". I asked what other shows people thought were similarly hobbled. Nothing. Mustn't say anything critical otherwise we'll miss out on suckling at the UK TV tit if the opportunity arises. Frankly, I'd prefer to go back to being crapped on by cattle.

Most of these shows are the equivalent of Linus' security blankie that audiences can snuggle up to while there braincells go snap, crackle and POP!

I've caught up with some of the US dramas that are more crap than cream and even there the programme makers have at least tried something different.

Phillip Barron said...

I think you're missing the point of these shows, people don't actually watch them.

They have the TV on in the background, but they already know what's going to happen because they read itin TV Quick or something similar.

I used to regularly sit in a room full of twenty or so people who insisted on having these shows on the TV and thn talked over the top of them from beginning to end.

They don't watch them, but they won't miss them. It's not about the stories, the characters or the dialogue, it's about the community.

Jaded and Cynical said...

Deadly accurate, as usual, ED. And all the more damning coming from someone who writes for these shows.

Reflecting on your comments, it struck me that if you take the whole, vast area of action-driven thrillers and crime drama, it's not just that shows like '24' and The Sopranos set the standard, it's that British broadcasters don't even compete. A generation ago, ITV offered The Sweeney and The Professionals. This week, they give us The Bill and an episode of Miss Marple.

I'd be curious to know if anyone has any theories as to why we've reached this point. Is it just that there's a crop of idiots in charge, or is there a deeper problem - something structurally wrong with the industry?

Piers said...

Now I haven't watched Holby Blue yet, so I can't comment on its quality as a drama.

But I do want to pick up on something.

There's nothing wrong with a police drama per se.

And Holby Blue is the first new police show on British TV since 2001. That's six years. We're not exactly drowning in 'em.

Good Dog said...

In reply to Piers, I could mention 2002's Foyle's War, but then it's more in the vein of a whodunnit than a procedural.

But then again, six years since the last police drama and we get Holby Blue. It's like waiting all year long for Christmas day, unwrapping your present and finding a great big swirl of dog toffee. Not good.

Grant said...

Have you ever thought about moving to America to write?

JBeans said...

Maybe we disagree on the definition of 'new police show' - but I'm immediately thinking of Blue Murder, Murder City, Murder Investigation Team, Wire in the Blood, New Tricks, Life on Mars, Serious and Organised, Murder Prevention... All since 2001.

I agree with good dog - it's the 'house style' that is to blame. The networks are simply too scared to try anything new. The script for Holby Blue was actually above average, but if you were flicking through channels, it looks no different to any other programme of its ilk.

I had some involvement with Murder Investigation Team - (M.I.T) and I know that it was shot in a much more dynamic and original way than usual, but was re-edited to make it more conventional.

With regards to Phillip's observation that people don't actually watch these programmes - the best term I have heard for this sort of TV is 'visual chewing gum'.

English Dave said...

It is also the case that Mersey Beat ran for 4 series so technically really it is only three years since the last bog standard cop shop drama on the BBC. And we had City Central a couple of years before Mersey Beat. Created by one Tony Jordan? I wonder how Holby Blue is different?

Of course these types of shows have a place on the schedules, but another bog standard police procedural is not going to win back viewers. At best it will merely satisfy existing ones.

English Dave said...

Jbeans, as you may be aware Tony Jordan has two new projects coming out. One is Echo Beach, a new soap. The other is Moving Wallpaper, [ the industry term for pap] a soap about behind the scenes of Echo Beach.

Thanks to you I'm now pitching Moving Chewing Gum, a soap about a soap about a soap.

Lara said...

I too discussed this briefly on my blog, as have many others. A lot of writers I know would love to be involved in or have "written & would love to sell" fast-paced, 'edgy' (!) TV, but getting in/sold, is like attacking a brick wall with a pair of scissors.

Unfortunately, very few People in Power have the balls to take that leap of faith and risk too much - why bother when you can churn out xxxxxxx (insert applicable name) replicas AND get the viewing figures?

Quite honestly, I am thinking of pitching soon too: a ball at my TV if this level of 'entertainment' continues for much longer ;0)