British television – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Public-Service Streaming: BBC Three and the Politics of Online Engagement Thu, 21 May 2015 11:00:13 +0000 Post by Elizabeth Evans, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Elizabeth Evans, Assistant Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

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In March 2014, the BBC announced plans to “transform” one of its channels, BBC Three, into an online-only “channel.” Under the proposals, BBC Three would cease linear broadcasting and exist only via the Corporation’s website and the hugely popular online catch-up service, iPlayer. This would then allow the channel’s broadcast spectrum space to be transferred to a new BBC One+1 channel and to increase the broadcast hours of children’s-only channel CBBC from twelve hours to fourteen. The announcement comes at an uncertain time for the BBC. After several years of budget freezes, its Royal Charter, which gives the BBC the right to collect the legally enforced license fee, is due for review in 2016. Its future has been positioned front and center in public debates. Party leaders called for the Corporation’s reform during the recent UK general election. Prime Minister David Cameron then appointed a new Minister for Culture, Media and Sport who had likened the license fee to the hugely unpopular and riot-inducing Thatcherite poll tax. Central to these debates are questions around the future of television viewing in light of digital technologies, and the continued value of public-service broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising that BBC Three has been the catalyst for these debates. BBC Three is clearly and incessantly labeled as a “youth-oriented” channel with an intended audience aged 16-34. That same group is equally consistently associated with changing viewing habits and a shift away from traditional distribution avenues such as broadcasting. This association was central to how the BBC announced its plan. Director of TV Danny Cohen told the press in December 2014 that it was the BBC’s responsibility to adapt to perceived changes in how 16-24 year-olds watch television. This necessary change is, apparently, a move away from broadcasting, producing a mix of episodic and short-form content, and positioning streaming technology at the heart of the BBC’s activities.

BBC 3-image2-BluestoneAlthough justified via beliefs concerning changing audience behavior, the BBC Three announcement also involved a series of claims about the value of broadcasting or, more specifically, values that broadcasting lacks. Cohen pronounced that the new, online BBC Three would “have the freedom to break traditional shackles and allow the BBC to be a leader in digital change.” BBC Three Controller Damien Cavanagh equated this “breaking [of] traditional shackles” to short-form video and to more transmedia or interactive storytelling forms designed to promote debate and to generate a “richer experience” for audiences. This sense of experimentation and innovation was explicitly positioned as a value that BBC Three’s new form would offer its youth audience, and which broadcasting apparently lacks.

Broadcasting was instead constructed as beholden to regimented episode lengths and slow production schedules. Both claims are somewhat ironic and problematic. BBC Three already produces short content in the form of 60 Second News, and on multiple occasions during its history, the BBC has created broadcast content that isn’t an hour or half-hour in length. Short-form content is a regular feature of rival public-service broadcaster Channel 4’s weekday evening schedule, with a five-minute slot for its series 4Thought. The BBC has equally ignored the hour and half-hour as program start times, most notably in Saturday early-evening slots. In terms of responsiveness to emerging events, the valuing of online over broadcasting also ignores the central technological feature of broadcasting: that it can be live, with news and current-affairs programming regularly responding rapidly to real-world events via broadcast means. Nothing inherent in broadcasting technology requires regimented slots or a delay in production. Ultimately the BBC positions the creative value of online engagement in terms of freedom from the (perceived) traditional practices of the broadcast industry, practices that have seemingly restricted the potential of broadcast technology itself.

Thus, the transformation of BBC Three has been couched in debates that devalue broadcasting in favor of a streaming-based distribution system seen as more agile, creative and relevant for younger audiences. To this end, the proposed changes to BBC Three are positioned as not simply about changing a single television channel, but about reinventing what the BBC, and what public service, means, future-proofing it for 2016 Charter renewal and beyond.

BBC 3-image3-I-survived-a-zombie-apocalypse-posterAt the same time, however, the proposals contain unspoken value statements that actually privilege broadcasting. After the full plans met with criticism, Kavanagh worked to reassure critics that new BBC Three content would still appear on BBC One or BBC Two in late-evening slots, creating a hierarchy of content at the fringes of the BBC’s broadcast activities. More prominently, at the heart of the BBC’s announcement is the provision of a BBC One+1 channel, which would repeat that channel’s content one hour later, along with expanded broadcast provision for children aged 6-12 via CBBC. By balancing an online BBC Three with broadcast expansion elsewhere, the Corporation makes a number of further assumptions about the value of television technology for its audiences, highlighting contradictions in its overall strategy. The general audience is positioned as still predominantly valuing broadcasting, but that “general audience” apparently does not include younger audiences or those who enjoy content aimed at younger audiences (that is, people not aged 16-34 but still interested in content pitched to that demographic). It also assumes that BBC Three’s audiences will not suffer from the same problems with accessing broadband services that BBC One’s audience would. Younger audiences, according to the BBC, would not only prefer to access content via streaming but are also universally able to do so, and thus are unaffected by the myriad of socio-cultural factors that play into the digital divide or infrastructural discrepancies in broadband access.

Whether the transformation of BBC Three actually goes ahead is still to be seen (governing body the BBC Trust has yet to approve the idea, and it has already been delayed until 2016). However, the way the BBC has proposed the strategy highlights the contradictory values currently at play in the UK television landscape. The notion that public-service broadcasting must change is positioned as self-evident. Online spaces are seen as agile and creative in ways that broadcasting is not, as protected against any further changes that may be wrought by digital convergence. Younger audiences are seemingly denied this value of broadcasting and firmly associated with the changes that are positioned at the heart of the new public-service media. But at the same time, additional value is placed on broadcasting for general – read older – audiences. As the BBC presents streaming and digital technologies as the future, it simultaneously reinforces broadcasting and the TV set. This works to position the Corporation as embracing the new while still valuing the old, and reiterates the centrality of the relationship among content, audience and distribution to public service broadcasting’s future definitions.


Honoring Hilmes: Strange Report Thu, 14 May 2015 13:00:42 +0000 Strange_Report_title_cardPost by Jonathan Bignell, University of Reading

This is the ninth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

The aspect of Michele Hilmes’ work that has most affected me is her brilliant historical analysis of the related but distinct broadcasting traditions of Britain and the USA in Network Nations (2011). She has documented and evaluated their long-standing links, but also shown how each has defined itself by repudiating the other. The lesson that I have learned from Michele is that when we look closely at the detail of history, there are always more complex and more interesting things to discover. This post is just a brief example of such a discovery. What looks like a British show imitating an American format turns out to be a US production made abroad. Its conventionally transatlantic casting includes a Lithuanian playing an ex-patriate Minnesotan, and alongside the “swinging London” of the mid-1960s we see the decaying Victorian houses of the inner city.

My former colleague Billy Smart kindly gave me Network’s DVD release of the action series Strange Report (1969-70) recently. At first glance, it looks like a rather less successful example of the British action shows that flourished in the 1960s and briefly succeeded across the Atlantic too (as discussed in my 2010 Media History article). British series like The Saint (1962-69), The Avengers (1961-69), and The Champions (1968-69) adopted versions of US industrial organization to make programmes that would be saleable to US networks, by shooting on colour film, on location (British drama was still mainly shot on video in the studio), and with an upbeat “mod” aesthetic.


Strange Report seems initially to conform to the format. Each week a retired British Home Office criminologist, Adam Strange (played by Anthony Quayle), solves sensitive cases in which government departments cannot become publicly involved. Strange is aided by a young US Rhodes scholar, Hamlyn Gynt (Kaz Garas), and Strange’s next-door neighbour, the vivacious model-cum-artist Evelyn (Anneke Wills).

But rather than representing international modernity, Strange Report remains surprisingly bound to its London setting. The series was filmed from July 1968 to March 1969 on location in London and at Pinewood Studios outside the city. To solve cases, the methodical and avuncular Strange uses his personal laboratory at his house in the run-down Paddington district, and his cerebral approach is complemented by Gynt’s physical vigour and Evelyn’s familiarity with London’s trendy bohemian culture. The British Film Institute’s excellent online guide, screenonline, notes that: “Locating the show in a recognisably contemporary London allowed the programme to display a degree of realism and authenticity unusual for its genre.” One episode is an investigation of violent student demonstrations (shortly after the revolutionary events of May 1968 in Paris), while another is about immigration and racism (in 1967 the British Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, infamously predicted “rivers of blood” after immigration from Britain’s former empire increased). Stylish action-adventure series rarely addressed such concerns. Although the middle-class, middle-aged Strange tamed these issues by the end of each episode, the disparate quasi-family of protagonists seem closely engaged in their milieu.

Two of the featured actors were British: Quayle trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was a member of the respected Old Vic theatre company from 1932. After army service in World War II he was a leading actor and director at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which would later become the Royal Shakespeare Company. He featured in the British war films Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and The Guns of Navarone (1961), as well as the epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Aneke Wills featured in a TV adaptation of British children’s novel The Railway Children in 1957, and in Doctor Who from 1966-67 as companion to Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. These were iconic English actors in significant British film and television roles. But Kaz Garas who played Strange’s youthful American sidekick was born in Lithuania, not the USA, though he based his career there.

NBC brochureThe most interesting aspect of this transnational programme is that its executive producer was Norman Felton, best known as the creator and producer of US network series Dr. Kildare (1961-66), The Lieutenant (1963-64), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68). Felton was a transatlantic figure himself; he was born in London, but his family migrated to the US in 1929. His parents returned but Felton stayed in the USA, won a playwriting fellowship to the University of Iowa, and worked in theatre, then radio at NBC. In the 1950s he worked in TV in New York, writing and directing for live anthology dramas like Alcoa Hour (1955-57), Goodyear Playhouse (1955-57), and Studio One (1948-58), and by end of the decade he was executive producer of Playhouse 90 (1956-60). He became MGM’s director of television, and formed the company that made Strange Report, Arena Productions, in 1961.

Felton was in London during production in 1969, and the British ITV network broadcast Strange Report that year. The intention was that production partner NBC would screen it in the USA and that a second, US-set series would be made in which the characters would relocate across the Atlantic. In January 1971, NBC got around to screening Strange Report on Fridays from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. EST until September, but the second series was never made, apparently because Quayle and Wills did not want to travel. The strange story of Strange Report complicates the history of British drama and its relationships with the American market, offshore co-production involving the US networks, and the innovative collaborations between British and American personnel in the 1960s. And this is just the short version of the story….



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Report From London: Final Thoughts Sun, 26 Jun 2011 12:58:37 +0000 I’ve reached the end of my stay in London, yet haven’t gotten close to the number of posts I could have written about British television. With one last dispatch to file, then, I offer quick glosses of some additional areas I would have liked to cover, if only my stay were longer.

1. Nearly all of my posts have been about prime time television, but there’s much to say about other dayparts (though I can’t say I’ve watched too much of them—choosing between exploring London and watching Jeremy Kyle isn’t a toughie). Most of this programming is roughly similar in genre to American television: there are morning shows (more commonly referred to as breakfast television); daytime is full of talk, lifestyle, and game shows, as well as reruns; and late night brings out chatty hosts like Graham Norton and Alan Carr, though not as many, as often or as prominently as in the US. In fact, a few weeks ago, I saw a Twitter exchange between British viewers who said they didn’t understand why Americans were inclined to stay up so late to watch talk shows. Of course, we don’t get them as much in other dayparts as British viewers do, and it’s intriguing to consider how much television scheduling practices can affect the rhythms of daily life.

2. I regret not writing anything here about radio, and I also regret not listening to it more while living here. Radio plays a much more central role in daily British lives compared to the US, particularly beyond music and thanks to the BBC. National radio services, paid for by the same license fee that covers TV, are key to the BBC’s public service mission, and in addition to providing a wide range of programming types – news, talk, comedy, drama and, still going strong after over 60 years and 16,000 episodes, The Archers – the BBC has also taken advantage of new technologies to make radio additionally available via a range of platforms, such as Freeview TV, digital radio, internet radio, and podcasts. It’s sad that public radio in the US is hanging on for dear life, when we just have to listen across the ocean to hear what cultural riches can come from strong publicly-funded support of broadcasting.

3. When I show a clip of a British TV show to American students and ask them what seems different from what they’re used to, someone will always say, often glibly, “They speak with British accents.” I’ve come to realize that this observation is more relevant than the person offering it ever imagines. Regional accents exist in the US, of course, but they’re rarely a key factor on television, as a standard, relatively neutral way of speaking dominates (which is why Justified is such as delight to listen to, not just watch). But in both everyday British life and on television, accents are a crucial indicator not just of region but of class and identity. Just as how a character dresses instantly identifies them as a certain type, so too do accents function on British television. Because I’m not familiar with the nuanced distinctions among them, and the shows expect that their viewers are, I often feel like I’m missing key elements of characterization. There are certainly countless other cultural signifiers that escape me as I watch, but few seem as prominent and functional as variations in British accents.

4. Repeats of programs, even quite old programs, are common here, even in prime time. While you might assume this is mainly a budgetary issue, reruns often do quite well in the ratings. For instance, an episode of the 1970s sitcom Dad’s Army aired on BBC2 a few Saturdays ago at 6:40pm and drew 2.21 viewers, making it the channel’s 12th highest rated show of the week. This also seems tied to the Christmas special phenomenon, where new and classic shows alike air special one-off episodes during the holidays. As an example, the 1980s sitcom Only Fools and Horses was kept alive through 2003 thanks to Christmas specials. Programs linger strongly in the cultural consciousness here (Father Ted iphone app!), which has made me realize that London desperately needs a TV memorabilia shop. I would be more than happy to operate it should someone want to hand me the start-up costs.

5. Watching British soap operas, particularly EastEnders and Emmerdale, has renewed my love for the format. As American daytime soaps have fought over the years to compete with OJ coverage, reality TV, and prime time soaps and teen TV, it seems that their content has pulled further away from the fundamental attractions of the genre, namely depth of character relationships and emotions, and pushed more toward the shallow attractions of sensationalistic plotlines. Conversely, British soaps (at least the two I’ve been watching) appear to have retained their dramatic roots in social realism, and while they do draw on attention-grabbing plots like baby stealing, they seem much more adept at exploring the genuine human emotions behind such plot machinations than many American soaps have lately.

6. Perhaps the singlemost striking characteristic of British TV is the vast gap between the intellectual nature of its most erudite programming and the mindless joys of its silliest fare. Just one example: last week BBC3 brought viewers both Our War, a bracing documentary series about British soldiers in Afghanistan, which in its first episode showed footage recorded by troops on the front lines of a young soldier dying in combat, and World’s Craziest Fools, a clip show rife with bad puns and hosted by Mr. T from his own living room. I would give anything to roust John Reith out of his eternal slumber to get his reaction to World’s Craziest Fools.

7. Among the shows I’ve caught over the six weeks I’ve been here, the ones I most recommend for Americans to check out if they can are the BBC2’s compellingly odd thriller The Shadow Line; the BBC2 comedies Lead Balloon and Psychoville, which capture a range of British sitcom from dry to absurdist; the BBC2 stand-up series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle; BBC3’s Our War; Channel 4’s affecting observational documentary 24 Hours in A&E; and the delightfully skewed CBBC children’s program Horrible Histories. Also, you absolutely must watch E4’s Misfits on Hulu. You simply must.

Farewell, London. Your TV has been awesome!


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Report From London: The Week That Was Sun, 19 Jun 2011 16:13:59 +0000

Once again, British TV has shown me things I’ve never seen before, this time disturbing images of death and human horrors (and that’s not even including The Marriage Ref). Given that this material aired alongside more standard fare on the primetime terrestrial lineup, I thought a selective overview of the week’s evening terrestrial programming would be instructive to reveal some primary trends, bearing in mind that it is summer, so this isn’t as representative of a typical week as it could be.

First, the programs with disturbing images were, as you would assume, from documentaries. Monday night brought Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die on BBC2 at 9pm. Pratchett, a fantasy novel author, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and led this exploration into assisted suicide, which is illegal in the UK. In the program’s most indelible moment, Pratchett watches a man suffering from a progressive motor neuron disease drink down a suicide cocktail provided by an organization called Dignitas, which legally assists suicides in Switzerland. We aren’t shown the exact moment of his death, but that which surrounds it stands out just as powerfully. The BBC has thus far logged nearly a thousand complaints from viewers who found this moment inappropriate for airing and others who objected that the documentary acted as advocate for, not objective observer of, assisted suicide. Just when I thought I had seen the most challenging TV footage of the week, Tuesday arrived with Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired at the mature content-accommodating time of 11:05. This unprecedented first-hand record of civilian war crimes conducted by the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters was as disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen anywhere, let alone on a television screen. I’ll leave for others the ethical question of whether the material from these documentaries was appropriate for airing and just offer a single trite observation: American broadcasters wouldn’t touch this stuff.

The rest of the week’s documentaries weren’t so historically important but should at least stay out of my nightmares. Some focused on serious issues, like Thursday night’s Breaking Into Britain on BBC1, which followed the plight of Afghans risking their lives to escape to the UK, and Channel 4’s Born to be Different, a new installment of a decade-old intermittent series following the upbringing of a group of disabled children. Others offered simpler charms, like BBC2’s James May’s Toy Stories: the Great Train Race on Sunday night, which saw the Top Gear host help to build the longest ever model railway track (one reviewer called this “a bit of a waste of the license fee”), and, glancing over at the digital lineup, BBC4’s Apples: British to the Core on Wednesday night (which one review described as “erudite and thoughtful;” seriously, how can you not love a TV system that gives you an erudite documentary on apples?). Channel 4 got more serious about sex than I’ve become accustomed to with Thursday night’s science special The Sex Researchers, but it also made sure to get its “wonky cock documentary” fare in, with the unavoidable Embarrassing Fat Bodies on Monday and Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic on Wednesday.

Such sensational content calls to mind reality TV, which can blur boundaries with documentary over here, but is also often present in a form quite familiar to US viewers, such as with The Apprentice on BBC1 Wednesdays (Lord Alan Sugar is the British Trump). Most of the competition reality shows, like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, aired their finales a few weeks ago, but one with a high culture twist, Popstar to Operastar (Simon Callow as judge!), is airing Sunday nights on ITV, with the efficiency of same-night performance and results episodes (they pop a drama in between episodes to supply time for vote counting). Also, God help us all, ITV is indeed airing its own Marriage Ref series with host Dermott O’Leary on Saturdays.

Of course, reality TV originated on these airwaves because it’s cheaper to produce than sitcoms and dramas, and with the terrestrials struggling financially as much as ever, scripted originals aren’t produced with as much frequency over here as they are on US screens. Channel 4 didn’t air a single original scripted show in prime time this week, but there were notable dramas elsewhere, with the BBC’s Tuesday premiere of the quirkily dark detective drama Luther, plus the crime drama Case Histories, airing Sunday and Monday nights; the Thursday finale of BBC2’s stirringly complex paranoid thriller The Shadow Line; the Cagney and Lacey-esque Scott & Bailey on ITV Sundays (which Radio Times describes as “so roundly, so voluptuously, so unashamedly female”); and the good old fashioned Agatha Christie’s Marple Wednesday night on ITV. The sitcom landscape is nearly barren right now, with just a handful of critically-maligned family multi-cams airing, including BBC1’s new In With the Flynns on Monday and the final season (mercifully, according to many) of the American-style My Family on Friday. Similar to how it draws its drama mostly from observational docs, Channel 4 currently gleans its comedy from panel and chat shows, offering a string of them on Friday night, rather than sitcoms.

Finally, there’s a sprinkling of movies and American imports to be found, mostly on Channel 5, which is now airing NCIS, the CSIs, Law & Order and Castle, while Channel 4 has Desperate Housewives on Wednesday, and BBC2 is airing The Kennedys on Friday. And then there are the primetime soaps, which I’m not saying much about because I’m already way over on word count, so I’ll save those perhaps for a future post.

For an American viewer, the abundant documentaries are a joy to behold, though I would imagine that the lesser volume of scripted series could prove frustrating. But at least American versions can be readily found, especially if one subscribes to Sky, whereas American viewers rarely get to see the best, or even the middling, of British TV, especially those documentaries. If only BBC America would air the apple doc, rather than The X-Files.


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Report From London: Content Regulation Sun, 12 Jun 2011 16:02:48 +0000 I’ve seen more testicles on British TV the past week than I have my in entire previous American TV viewing life. I’ve also heard enough f-bombs to think I must have HBO locked in. But no, it’s just good old terrestrial TV here in London. It’s commonly known that British TV allows more graphic content than US TV, and I can only confirm that. However, there are some intriguing recent complications to consider.

The regulatory qualifications that allow for graphic content here are the so-called watershed, the ever-present concept of public service, considerations of context, and channel warnings. The watershed is a regulatory term for 9pm as a content dividing line. Programming aired before 9pm should be suitable for children under 15 to view; programming after 9pm is intended for adult audiences, ushering in swear words, mature situations and images, and violence (with the latter primarily from US imports). The more graphic the content, the later it is supposed air, but what they deem to be more or less graphic here can be surprising to someone used to American standards. For instance, Channel 4’s Comedy Gala special on Thursday shocked me with the following joke aired around 9:30pm (PTC-types, please avert your eyes): “How do you stop a dog from humping your leg? Pick him up and suck his cock.” And this on a charity show raising money for a children’s hospital.

Nearly all of the testicles I’ve seen are also courtesy of Channel 4. The Embarrassing Bodies series intends to show sheepish Brits who are afraid to tell their doctors about their medical conditions that others have it far worse and yet are willing to display their, um, issues on TV, and thus no one should be afraid to talk to a GP. And herein lies a justification for some of this content: public service under the banner of education. The regulatory overseer Ofcom has fielded complaints about Embarrassing Bodies but defends the series, even when it airs uncovered bathing suit areas pre-watershed, stating in one ruling, “[I]n principle, educational programming on medical matters, and in particular a programme which stresses the importance of viewers not needing to feel anxious or embarrassed by any medical conditions, is not unsuitable for children,” and “discussing male genitalia and sexual problems clearly fell within the educational remit of the series.”

Ofcom also has an extensive list of contextual issues which should be taken into account by programmers, including the likely size and composition of the potential audience and the channel on which the material airs (i.e. Channel 4 is allowed to air more boundary-pushing content because of its remitted mission to do exactly that). And Ofcom insists that channels provide proper warning at the start of shows as to what’s coming along. Following ad breaks during E4’s 10pm airing of Embarrassing Teenage Bodies on Friday, the interstitial announcer warned, “Expect full frontal nudity, intimate examinations, discussions of medical health, and scenes of detailed surgery.”

The announcer also muttered after relaying the title at the start – no kidding – “Oh, my eyes.” Such a cheeky quip seems indicative of the hip youth status E4 strives for, and it also indicates how readily this programming could be taken as exploitative and excessively sensationalistic. However, the educational intent does seem at least partly sincere, with the reminders to see one’s doctor coming across as more than just cursory, and rarely does the content come across as sexually titillating. This shows a level of complexity about sexual content that US television (and culture) rarely approaches. (A friend on Twitter reminded me of the 2000 Tom Green MTV special about testicular cancer, which taught an acquaintance of his, who was not allowed to watch Tom Green, how to self-check, whereupon he found a lump and had surgery.)

Where the dog humping joke might fit within a public service remit is rather less clear (though it was in the name of charity, after all). It’s also worth noting that while the British public is apparently ok with that, thousands complained about costumes and dancing from Christina Aguilera and Rihanna during pre-watershed performances for last year’s X-Factor finale on ITV, which Ofcom later declared within the pre-watershed rules but “at the limit of acceptability.” A government-commissioned report on the sexualisation of media content accessible to children, released just last week, highlighted that incident and has Prime Minister David Cameron insisting that he will impose tighter regulations if Ofcom and the television services don’t voluntarily help to make pre-watershed television even more reliably child-friendly.

Ofcom has plenty of complaints to sift through already, with public concerns raised in recent days over the depiction of an assisted suicide on ITV’s Emmerdale (which I watched, and it offered some of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on a soap), a bed scene between gay lovers on EastEnders (which I also saw and thought was quite chaste compared to a similar scene on ABC’s One Life to Live from last year), the use of the c-word on daytime BBC Radio 4 (yes, I’m censoring myself), and Rihanna’s S&M music video. Ofcom can also prepare for more complaints after the airing of an actual assisted suicide in a BBC documentary Monday night. (And related to these TV issues, the British Board of Film Classification banned Human Centipede II last week.)

So while British TV truly is more permissive with content than American TV, concerns are currently circulating about increasing sexualization and lax regulation, particularly in regard to the potential moral impact of television on children. Meanwhile, American television’s own decency regulations are in legal flux right now. (And it’s intriguing to compare the vagueness of the FCC’s rules with the extensive detail in Ofcom’s Broadcast Code, which not only has many rules but even additional guidance notes on those rules.) But I somehow don’t think that greater testicle allowance will be the end result.


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Report From London: Channels Sun, 05 Jun 2011 15:47:35 +0000 I’d like to take care of some housekeeping with this post and lay out the multichannel landscape here in England. (Hopefully this doesn’t read like a particularly dry Wikipedia entry, but it’s crucial basic info to know to understand what’s going on today in British TV.) In previous reports, I primarily focused on the terrestrial channels, and together those five outlets remain more dominant than the major networks are in the US, drawing a 55% share of all TV viewing, compared to the usual under-40% primetime share for the US nets. (The later arrival of multichannel competition in the UK could explain part of that, but original programming, branding, digital services, and the license fee certainly play a role, too.) Even so, digital expansion has brought significant challenges to the traditional channels, yet it has also enhanced their operations in various ways.

Starting with the basics, the five terrestrial channels accessible to anyone via antenna are BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5. The BBCs are funded by a license fee (£145.50 annually, about $239) paid by all TV households. The other channels are supported by advertising, though each also has certain public service mandates to follow. The expansion afforded by the digital switchover (which will be finalized next year, before the Olympic Games air) has allowed the terrestrial channels to add additional outlets: BBC3 (targeting 16-34s), BBC4 (high arts and culture), BBC News, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba (for Gaelic speakers), CBBC (targeting 6-10s), CBeebies (under 6), ITV2 (16-34s), ITV3 (upscale 35+), ITV4 (25-44 males), CITV (children), E4 (15-35s), More4 (arts and culture), Film4, 5* (newly re-branded as “fun-loving”), and 5USA (American imports). Some of these have +1 counterparts (flasgship schedule delayed by an hour), and there are also a handful of HD channels. All of these digital channels are available for no subscription fee to viewers via Freeview (requiring either a set-top box or an integrated TV tuner) and Freesat (a satellite service). The BBC has also developed a digital interactive service called Red Button, and there are a few other channels available on Freeview, such as Dave (male-targeted comedy), Yesterday (history programming), and Quest (a Discovery outlet).

Moving on to pay TV services, Sky is the primary satellite provider (in the news a lot lately for the News Corp. full takeover bid). Sky offers everything already listed plus an array of Sky specialty channels (such as Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Sports); a collection of UK versions of US cable channels (Nickelodeon, Animal Planet, MTV, etc.); and various other channels (G.O.L.D., Home, Living). Virgin Media is the dominant cable service, with similar offerings, and much of the content available on pay TV seems to consist of reruns of terrestrial programming, US imports, movies, and sports, with relatively few original productions compared to the terrestrial channels.

Out of approximately 25 million TV households in the UK, 15 million subscribe to a pay service, (with satellite having a nearly 3:1 edge over cable). This means that a substantial number of homes, about 40%, don’t rely on pay TV, compared to only about 15% in the US. (One wonders how the US TV landscape would be different if a Freeview-type service had been developed. I recall a Broadcasting & Cable editorial from Harry Jessell over a decade ago calling for multicasting as a way for broadcasters to survive pay TV competition.)

Finally, internet users can click to live streaming of BBC and ITV channels plus free online catch-up services, including the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4 on Demand, and Demand Five, as well as the subscription Sky Player. Until recently, a UK Hulu of sorts existed called SeeSaw, but it just shut down after a difficult few years of operation, while the planned internet TV video-on-demand service YouView has run into problems as well.

The burgeoning pay TV landscape has certainly hurt the terrestrial channels, both in terms of simple viewing share but also in regard to their ability to fulfill public service mandates under an onslaught of largely unregulated commercial competition. Announcing a reduction of ITV’s news and current affairs coverage demands in 2008, the chief of Ofcom (Britain’s FCC) said, “Audiences value public service programming highly, but strong digital TV take-up means it is becoming harder for our leading commercial broadcasters to provide this.” Similarly, Channel 4’s chairman said in 2007, “We may be faced with a stark choice. Either we will have to reduce our output of public service programming and focus more of our schedule on commercial programmes, or see Channel 4’s finances continue to deteriorate.” And the BBC has seen its very lifeblood, the license fee, threatened due to digital’s elimination of the scarcity principle that helped to justify it in the first place. However, I’m also impressed by the extent to which the terrestrial outlets are forging new digital options themselves to stay alive, many of which have populist imperatives but which also stand to carry public service principles into a new era.


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Report From London: Documentary Sun, 29 May 2011 15:15:52 +0000 Bridging from last week’s theme, another scheduling issue that fascinates me about Britain’s primetime weeknight television is the range of genres offered. Whereas American TV nights bring a predictable mix of reality TV, sitcoms, and drama series, you can find all that and more on the main British channels, including soaps, short-run and one-off dramas, sketch comedy, chat shows and panel discussions, cultural features, movies, and every stripe of documentary. As Cathy Johnson, author of a must-read forthcoming book on US and UK channel branding, discussed in a visit to my British TV class last week, the “mixed program schedule” helps to fulfill a public service ideal of reaching different audiences with different needs, and it encourages all viewers to experience types of programming they might not have purposely sat down for.

I’d particularly like to focus on the prominence of documentary programs in primetime for the rest of this post, because I’m quite taken by just how many you can see in one week on the five terrestrial channels (broadcast networks, in American terms). For all intents and purposes, documentaries do not exist on US network television, with the only programming coming remotely close being news magazine shows (which primarily focus on doctors who murder their secret second wives). By contrast, on Monday of last week here, every show in the 9pm slot – the most important hour of primetime – fell into the so-called factual category.

The most compelling of these shows aired on BBC2, as Adam Curtis’s poetically titled All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace offered the first episode of a three-part series on the dangers of over-reliance on computers. This complex, non-linear hour (more an essay than a documentary, one viewer tweeted) interwove everything from Ayn Rand’s objectivism to Monica Lewinsky in arguing (somehow) that the West was driven to financial ruin not just by greed but also misguided trust of computers. Curtis has earned a reputation for such polemical documentary-collages, the likes of which would never pass through the revolving door of an American television channel’s corporate headquarters. Of course, this program airs on BBC2, a channel devoted to special interest fare, where its small 5.6% viewing share for the hour is acceptable, even expected.

BBC1’s 9pm offering indicated that it’s not all erudite, intellectual fare here, as Supersize Ambulance introduced us to a service that transports extremely obese people to the hospital. It wasn’t too far off from a TLC-type actuality show, but it was a more thoughtful, informative hour than one is familiar with from commercial TV. Supersize Ambulance earned a 14% share, but it was outdrawn by the 21.6% share for ITV’s Strangeways, the final episode of a three-parter investigating life in Britain’s largest high-security prison. Channel 4 got a 4.6% share with the third episode of a four-part Gordon Ramsay travel cuisine series, while The Hotel Inspector, with the sixth episode of an eight-part observational doc about renovating rundown hotels, garnered a 7.5% share for Channel 5.

Such factual entertainment remained prominent across the week, highlighted by BBC1’s Crimewatch (a sort of Britain’s Most Wanted) on Tuesday; Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E (an emergency room observational) on Wednesday; BBC1’s Inside the Human Body and C4’s Cutting Edge: Breaking a Female Paedophile Ring on Thursday; and BBC2’s Wind Farm Wars (a four part series; four episodes on wind farms!) and Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood (featuring the career of DW Griffith; DW Griffith!) on Friday.

While public service mandates explain much of this (for instance, ITV is required to air at least thirty-five primetime hours of current affairs programming annually), tight budgets and channel branding also play a role. Post-Big Brother, Channel 4 is known as the home for “fixed camera” observational docs, and as my go-to UK TV expert Faye Woods pointed out to me, Channel 4 has also essentially branded certain time slots, with 8pm for lifestyle or current affairs docs and 9pm for more high profile docs. I’m also intrigued by how Channel 4 treads the line between education and exploitation – and increasingly crosses it, according to its critics – with series like the very popular My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the upcoming Bums, Boobs, and Botox (I’m so there), and the pedophile ring show (which was actually more understated about the topic than, say, Dateline NBC would ever be, offering a starkness that I found more chilling than anything Chris Hansen could ever bust in on). Referring to the tendency to include graphic images in shows like Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, a Facebook friend described Channel 4’s typical directive to me as, “Under the guise of documentary, we’re going to show naughty bits.”

Naughty bits also fall under the category of things you won’t see on American network television (a topic for a future post), but it’s the virtual absence of documentary programming, even the more pedestrian fare which outdraws the Adam Curtis sort here, that truly indicates cultural impoverishment and commercial dominance on US broadcast networks.


Report From London: Scheduling Sun, 22 May 2011 14:14:24 +0000 Though turning on my television set was the very first thing I did upon arriving at my new London flat last Monday (finding much to my delight that Diagnosis Murder was on BBC2), I haven’t watched many British shows yet. This is mainly because I’ve been too consumed with catching up on the season finales of my favorite American shows, which I’m able to do overseas thanks to the Slingbox, the second greatest invention of the past decade.* The intensive season finale period is foreign to British television, which schedules programs on a year-round basis, not along a September-to-May season trajectory. A number of discussants at In Media Res last week argued that the primacy of season finales has lessened in the US thanks to new viewing and time-shifting technologies. However, particularly as a devotee of online TV discussions and a fan of Must See TV like Parks and Recreation, I couldn’t fathom waiting until after my London trip to see these final episodes. Of course, now the US network television schedule turns to the summer black hole period, with Meh See TV reality shows and regular season cast-offs. Comparatively, British television keeps up a more standard schedule, albeit with fewer prestige shows and more escapist reality TV to accommodate summer lifestyles. Thus, with my weekly Good Wife and Community appointments having ended, I will henceforth turn my attention more fully to British TV.

Though I haven’t immersed myself in programming yet, I have been looking at scheduling, which, as indicated above, is more variable in England than in the US. This has deep historical roots, going back to the early days of BBC radio, when there was minimal regular, “fixed point” scheduling of shows, the paternalistic logic of uplift being that a listener would turn on the set at any given time and hear something she might not have purposely tuned in for otherwise but would be enriched by. Scheduling became more rigid once television and ITV’s commercial competition arrived, but inventive timetables are still evident today.

For instance, whereas the current series of Doctor Who has run in the US on BBC America every Saturday at 9pm, the five BBC1 airings in England have had four different start times (6, 6:15, 6:30, 6:45), with each announced only just over a week in advance. Doctor Who also illustrates how the BBC innovatively schedules across its multiple outlets for audience targeting. The current series premiered in April on the primary BBC channel at 6pm; a 15-minute tribute to the late Sarah Jane Adventures star Elisabeth Sladen aired following that on the children’s outlet CBBC at 6:45; and the behind-the-scenes Doctor Who: Confidential then ran at 7pm on the 16-to-34-targeted BBC3. Except for news experiments by NBC and PBS multicasting, the US networks haven’t used their affiliated stations’ digital real estate for additional channel programming (opting instead to devote the space to high-definition), nor have they tried to foster scheduling compatibility like this via their conglomerate cable siblings.

I’m also quite taken by the patchwork scheduling of England’s four flagship soap operas. Under a gentleman’s agreement to not battle directly, none of them airs a single half-hour episode simultaneously. Channel 4’s Hollyoaks is the only one that airs at the exact same time each weeknight: 6:30pm Monday through Friday. You can next tune in ITV’s rural soap Emmerdale at 7pm all week, plus an extra episode at 8pm on Thursday. Coronation Street then appears on ITV at 7:30 and 8:30 on Monday and Friday and 8:30 on Thursday. Finally, the BBC’s EastEnders jumps in between the Corries at 8pm on Monday and Friday and airs at 7:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday. You can also find repeats of each soap, including omnibus blocks on the weekend.

Other scheduling quirks here include shows starting at off-hour times, like 8:35 or 9:50, and the stripping of new dramas across the week, as with the BBC’s recent three-episode drama Exile airing on consecutive nights. And multiple channels, including Channel 4, ITV1, ITV2, E4, and Dave (yes, there’s a channel called Dave; it airs comedy programming), offer so-called plus-one (+1) digital sister channels that air the flagship schedule on a one-hour delay, thereby easing DVR recording crunches (though also, my British TV scholar friend Faye Woods pointed out to me, cheaply filling their digital allocations).

Does all this variability mean that British viewers come to rely even more heavily on DVR timeshifting and online catch-up services to manage their own schedules, representing a complete turn away from the legacies of the past, when schedulers felt they knew better than the viewer when programs should be consumed? Or does such flexibility actually accommodate allegiance to the traditional linear schedule, as a new BBC2 Review Show Special on the future British TV suggested and some recent statistics indicate? I look forward to testing my own spectatorship against these questions in the coming weeks (or at least after Glee mercifully comes to a season’s end this Tuesday).

*Twitter is the greatest invention, and you can follow me there to read more of my reactions to British TV across the week.


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Misfits, very British Teen TV Thu, 13 Jan 2011 09:00:53 +0000 In a week when discussions of US and UK televisual differences and distinctions, particularly around class, accompanies the broadcast of US remakes of Shameless (Showtime) and Skins (MTV), its great to get a chance to talk about a British show that owes a debt to both, but in my view is arguably superior.

Misfits‘ industrial context is key to understanding some of the issues Anne addresses. It’s shown on E4, a free-to-air sister channel to terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4.  Targeted at a youth demographic, it primarily showcases US Teen TV alongside Friends reruns and reality formats. E4’s distinct brand identity feeds off Channel 4’s status as the younger, edgier terrestrial channel, with a reputation for quality UK drama and US imports.  Alongside ensemble teen drama Skins and teen boy sitcom The Inbetweeners (whose remake is currently at pilot stage with MTV), Misfits demonstrates a successful shift in recent years to E4 commissioning original British programming.  It’s a niche channel, but it makes a lot of noise. Ratings for The Inbetweeners third season beat out programming on terrestrial channels, Skins has won an audience award BAFTA (the UK Emmys) and last year Misfits won the BAFTA for drama series to gasps of surprise and delighted cheers.

E4’s brand identity is key to the tone that Anne notes in Misfits.  It’s a bit cheeky, a bit snarky, it prides itself in not taking things too seriously.  The ironic tone of E4’s continuity announcers and promotions – particularly of its US imports – presents its programming through a framework of peculiarly bombastic phrasing (“chuffing”, “ruddy hell”, “telly box”) and light mockery.  This allows US Teen TV’s glamorous melodramas to retain their escapist emotional pleasures, yet reframes them within the channel’s pose of ironic detachment in order to assimilate them into E4’s ‘insincere’ British youth TV flow.

It’s British shows operate by drawing from yet distinguishing themselves against US Teen TV.  Their combination of excess and the everyday, surrealism and reality, is drawn from British television’s legacy of social realism and anarchic comedy. This is set against the escapist pleasures, gloss, melodrama (and perhaps underlying conservative ideologies) of shows like 90210, Glee and One Tree Hill, the contrasts serve the UK shows’ poses of authenticity (Look how casually we do drugs! Watch us walk around in our dorky knickers!).  Whilst US Teen TV can happily air in daytime slots, E4’s British youth TV usually airs at 10pm (though later when transferred to Channel 4), enabling the language and depictions of sexuality that Anne notes.

I think that Misfits gets away with its content because it is nearly always framed as blackly comedic, through its play with representations and its witty dialogue, together with the suspension of disbelief that its genre elements bring.  It somehow manages to be sincere and snarky all at once, and we care oh so much about these characters.  Partly, this is creator and writer Howard Overman’s distinctive dialogue and tone, which he is finding difficult to transfer to the more generic arena of BBC quirky detective series with recent misfires Vexed and an adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently.  Partly it is the excellent performances from virtual unknowns (though with major roles in Spring Awakenings and Channel 4’s Red Riding amongst them) and the chemistry of the group, who hate each other but secretly might care a tiny bit.

Nathan may be rude and lewd, perpetually self-aggrandising (to the others disgust), but Robert Sheehan is so effortlessly charismatic, you would follow him anywhere.  Kelly may be a ‘Chav’ – a role Lauren Socca has fine tuned in social realist dramas The Unloved and Five Daughters – but Socca makes the frustrations behind the tough mouth clear, and hilarious. Compounded by her power to hear others thoughts – and what they think of her, a person society brands and dismisses – Kelly is kind of caring, kind of smart but still an unrepentant gobby cow. Though compared to the boys’ powers (Invisibility! Rewinding time!) the girls have kind of a rough deal – don’t even get me started on the punishment of the sexualised young woman by giving her a power that basically amounts to fighting off rape when touched. 

Anne’s difficulty with placing both the location, the langauge and the context is interesting, as what is universal here becomes very culturally specific when consumed abroad.  This cultural discount is arguably what is driving US remakes, in preference to imports.  (I’m interested in the channel brand identity mash-up that will occur with MTV’s remaking of E4’s British Teen TV in service of their own push for ‘authenticity‘). Misfits is often tagged ‘ASBO superheroes’, and the orange jumpsuits of community service make a handy uniform for our reluctant gang, more likely to accidentally kill someone than save them.  ASBO (Anti-Social Behavioral Order), like Chav, is a very British bit of slang to derogatorily mark a character as part of the undesirable underclass.  The pleasure of Misfits is its presentation of our outcasts, the apathetic can’t be bothered generation, suddenly handed great power and responsibility and generally, just messing it up. How very British.


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Deracinated TV: Watching Misfits in America Wed, 12 Jan 2011 21:34:28 +0000 Note: This is the first of a two-part series addressing the reception of British television series Misfits.  The second column, written by Faye Woods, will appear tomorrow.

Last month, I was in need of a new show.  Upon the recommendation of Lainey Gossip and my Twitter feed, I decided on Misfits, a show about which I knew very little, save the following:

1.)  It is British.

2.) It is about teenagers.

3.) I couldn’t obtain it through strictly legal means.

So I did what many a technologically savvy, underpaid, ethically muddled media studies scholar has done before me: I found it on the internet.  It’s widely available on YouTube, via BitTorrent, and through other streaming sites of dubious legality; suffice to say I watched the first season (six episodes) in its entirety.

For those unfamiliar with Misfits, it follows the lives of five British teens of unspecified age, all of whom have been sentenced to perform public service after committing various small crimes (the specifics of which are revealed over the course of the season).  During the first day of their service, a massive electric storm forms over the city, striking the five teens, their supervisor, and, as we later learn, hundreds of others in the city.  The bestowed each of its victims with specific powers.  For our main characters, it is clear that their powers stem from personality traits before the storm: an intensely reserved character can become invisible; a hyper-sexed female is suddenly able to cause anyone she touches to desire immediate sexual intercourse. But this is no made-for-TV X-Men: the dialogue is tart and whip-smart, the plotting is clever, and the acting is spot-on.  Misfits is superbly entertainmening, no matter how you classify it.

Within five minutes, I realized I was profoundly clueless about this show, particularly in terms of industrial and cultural context.  My cultural blindess was straightforward: the intensity of the accents made me feel an immediate need for subtitles (unfortunately, the pirates failed to provide any for me).  I didn’t know the slang, I didn’t know how old these kids were supposed to be, or if this was an accurate portrayal of community service.  I didn’t know what city (or what type of city — suburban? Exurban?) this was supposed to be.  I didn’t know that the “boot” of a car was the trunk, to what part of anatomy the word “fanny” referred, or what a “chav” was.  I didn’t know if the slight differences in accents should indicate something about the characters’ class or immigration status.  How was that supposed to influence the way that I read and understood the narrative?  I consider myself a moderately cultured person (I’ve lived in France; I’ve travelled through Europe) but that didn’t mean I could pick up on the messages that most of the intended audience — that is to say, Brits and members of the “commonwealth” — would receive as a matter of course.

The industrial blindness was even more striking, especially as a scholar of media industries, invested in the specifics of production and distribution.  Yet for various reasons (in large part related to my choice of dissertation topic), my knowledge is almost wholly limited to Hollywood.  The little logo on the corner of the screen said “4,” so I knew this wasn’t a BBC program.  Bumpers as the end of the show promised new episodes of Glee, offering a modicum of insight into the type of audience the channel was courting.  But what about the nudity, sex, lewd humor, and profusion of profanity?  And the repeated use of the “c-bomb” — one of the few remaining “sacred” words in American vernacular?  Did Misfits air on a premium channel, a sort of HBO?  If not, how did the producers get away with it?  I know that France allows nudity on television in everything from yogurt commercials to sitcoms, but this was no simple smattering of breasts: the narrative was crass and obscene, albeit hilarious.  And who wrote the show?  Was the showrunner known for other series?  Did any of the actors have star images that might influence the way that viewers would receive their performances?

Faye will address many of these questions in her post tomorrow, but for now I want my lack of knowledge to stand as a testament to the ignorance of an otherwise well-versed industry and cultural studies scholar.  As media content becomes increasingly fluid — deracinated from its original flow and “intended’ reception through global and digital flows of information — it’s imperative that we think through what such “cluelessness,” for lack of a more appropriate word, means.   How much am I missing when I watch Misfits and other non-American television, and how much does it matter?  How has bittorrenting, streaming, and other novel means of obtaining non-domestic media made this question particularly pertinent today?  Finally, what are the implications — both for the show’s potential future in America, and for Americans’ future citizenship in the global mediascape?


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