Friday, February 12th, 1999
LONDON—In my early days of public broadcasting, when I would push the buttons that brought today’s episode of Sesame Street to a close and roll Misterogers Neighborhood, I learned our traditions flowed from the motherlode, WGBH in Boston, and, beyond that, from the grandmotherlode, the noble BBC in Britain. It is through this bloodline that we get seemingly endless serialized Brit drama poured into an envelope called Masterpiece Theatre, and it is why if you watch the credits carefully, many episodes of Nova are, in fact, repackaged versions of the BBC’s Horizon. The Antiques Road Show wouldn’t be coming to a Cobb Galleria near you if it wasn’t for its even more turgid British predecessor, and without Monty Python’s Flying Circus there would be absolutely none of the humor that is on TV today.
Well, maybe not that last part.
It is true that even some legendary US commercial television shows—All in the Family and Three’s Company, for example, were remakes of British successes. But it’s amazing how now the pop culture pipeline flows both ways.
Among the top-rated shows in British broadcast and satellite viewing these days: The Simpsons, Friends, and ER. Up-and-coming: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate: SG1, and South Park. Ricki Lake does quite well, too, go figure. Most overused catchphrase in the UK written press of late: "D’oh!"
In fact, American programming of the style and quality (ahem) of South Park is the successful ammunition that the other television channels have against the monopolistic BBC, which, for the first time in its existence, is seeing audience shares dip below 30%. There are only a handful of broadcast competitors squeezed onto a total of three non-BBC channels. But add to that Fox via direct broadcast satellite, which in the UK goes by the name Sky—pure Rupert Murdoch, right down to the success they’ve had with Wildest Police Videos 2, and yes, some competition is happening here, thanks to Homer and his Yank pals.
So it’s amazing that the BBC continues on, in its quirky yet gigantic way, funded by the license fees levied on every television set in England. Yes, take a deep breath and consider that next time the pledge-begging Alicia Ames makes you want to kickbox your TV. It’s kind of like paying for cable, except the picture isn’t that good, and you still need an antenna. Worse, they take that money and make television by the most expensive means necessary. When the BBC goes shopping at equipment conventions, they buy the Eddie Bauer versions of cameras and tape machines, with the leather seats, the fog lights, and matching luggage. If a crew of 3 is needed, they have a dozen.
It’s the same complaint I have with religious broadcasters: if you’re spending the quarters tossed into the plate by poverty-line grandmothers, do you really need the Cadillac of cameras?
Ah, don’t get me started. Suffice to say: the BBC’s nobility and tradition rides on the backs of working class Britons who just want a little noise on in the living room after their shift.
So they may be turning to a little Buffy with their supper.