Thursday, 22 March 2007

It's tough being a cultural behemouth

Someone just reminded me that I owe you all, gentle readers, an entry about British television. What with the hustle and bustle of many visitors at once (Joel just arrived today) it’s plum slipped my mind. It’s downright peach, apricot and boysenberry slipped my mind was well.

I do enjoy opining about the differences I’ve noticed between British and American culture, mostly because Brits don’t seem all that interested in my insights. It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they already know whatever I’ve told them. If I say, “Oh is that how you do it here? Like that? We do it like this,” I get a, “right, I know.” Not in a rude way, but they know all about American culture and customs already.

After all, we export our culture and customs throughout the world. Here in the UK they see how things are in the US daily. On TV, in movies, in music, and on web sites. What’s more, most of them have visited the US at least once. In fact I don’t think I’ve met a single person here yet who hasn’t.

It’s a little frustrating, as an American, because it makes you realize that we have no native culture any more. While the Brits have their own television, movies and music, we don’t, because our television, movies and music belongs to the world. It would seem odd, here, for me to refer to something as an “American TV show” or an “American movie,” because once it’s playing here, as a majority of things do, it’s no longer really American anymore. If I was from Italy, I could talk about how things are done in my country, talk about Italian music, movies, TV, etc. But because I’m American, it’s rather pointless to do that, because I’m not telling them anything they don’t already know.

But thankfully I still have my American readers to drone on to. “Did you know that here a wrench is called a ‘spanner?’ How crazy!” So, let me tell you all a little about British television.

I think I may have written about my difficulty getting TV when I first got here before. In the end it turned out to be a simple problem to fix, but the guy at the hardware had led me down a fool’s path. So once I got it, I’ve been couch-potatoing it up. I mean, it’s research for my blog, alright?

Anyway I’ve been incredibly impressed with the quality and quantity of their public affairs programming here. Primetime news takes up a good hour and a half on every main channel, staggered so there’s seems to always be an evening newscast on at some point from 5 to 10. Then in the evening, rather than talk shows, they have various discussion shows. One of them, Question Time, is relatively popular and features a panel of experts and politicians with a live studio audience who ask them questions. Shockingly, the questions people ask are actually well-informed and reasonable. Coming from the US, watching this show is like being in the twilight zone. And there are many other shows like it.

But public affairs programming isn’t all. The British love their documentaries. Every night there’s fascinating programs about historical events, human oddities, geographic areas, or hot topics. The other night there was a special about whether the whole global warming debate is actually just hysteria (a program which, while I don’t agree with its conclusion, was badly needed here, where people’s misconceptions actually exaggerate global warming, as opposed to the opposite in the US).

And you should see their game shows! There’s actually a regular show called “Nevermind the Fullstops” (a take on Never Mind the Bullocks, clever!) in which contestants clean up erroneously written paragraphs, and see who can catch the most mistakes. As a writer I love it, but I can’t help but sit there thinking, “Other people actually watch this??”

So why the difference? Are British people innately more clever than Americans? Or is there something else at work here? I would posit that the main factor is one simple fact: public television. In the UK, as in all of Europe, the government provides the basic channels, with no advertising. In exchange, everyone who owns a television has to pay a yearly TV license fee. Mine came to £136 a year. I don’t mind paying it because you can really see the difference in the quality of television when stations aren’t at the mercy of advertisers and hence, ratings.

It seems fairly obvious that a system in which the survival of a TV program depends on attracting the biggest number of viewers is going to result in programming which appeals to people’s most base instincts. The BBC is able to provide a mix of what people want with what people need, because they don’t have to can lower-rated programming that is higher quality.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of trashy British TV, and there are many channels that do rely on advertising. I mean, just look at my earlier posts on Big Brother. There’s some truly revolting stuff out there! But mixed in with that, there are many really really good programs that people actually watch. Even channel 4, which specifically targets younger viewers and is home to such vulgarity as Big Brother and Skins, also devotes 90 minutes a night to evening news. Its US equivalent, FOX, doesn’t even have a national evening newscast at all.

I mean the level of general public policy discussion here is just night and day different from the US. Yesterday, for instance, Gordon Brown issued what will be his last budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right-hand-man to the prime minister who controls the purse strings of the government. Now, the president’s annual budget has been something that the US newsmedia has long struggled with. It’s very complicated with a lot of numbers, which is not most journalists’ forte. Hence, the whole thing usually gets either ignored or ridiculously oversimplified.

Well the coverage here was clear, concise, and appropriately skeptical. All of the channels were abuzz about it when I got home from work yesterday, and in the morning my coworkers were all discussing it. The jist is that there was a surprise tax cut which noone expected, which is going to pull the rug out from under the Conservatives who have refused to entertain the idea of a tax cut if they were to gain power. Now the trick is, Brown is actually raising the National Insurance contribution and changing the requirements to not owe any tax at all, so he’s giving with one hand and taking away with another. In the US, such trickery might have floated past a number-averse media. But not here. The media was immediately pointing it out, and most people understand that although there was a tax cut, in the end it will all work out to be exactly the same.

So, long story short, the British have not disappointed me in my thirst for a higher level of discourse in the media and among people in general. And, they get their own “homeland” media, which we unfortunately can’t claim any of in the US. Ah, the pitfalls of superpowerdom. It’s not easy running the world.

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