The BBC versus the world: Picking a winner

Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, doesn’t think that American shows are better than British ones. This is presumably a prerequisite for his current role, but his opinion deserves scrutiny nevertheless. The “meme” of US superiority is “ an argument driven by box-set consumers who have a louder voice in Britain’s cultural dialogue than the average family who sit down at night in Britain’s towns and villages to decide what drama they want to watch”, Mr Cohen told the Times.

Keeping us on our toes, Danny, by conjuring up an in-vogue evolutionary metaphor then leaping back a few decades to the hoary ‘average family’ cliche. (Come on, even my mum can handle 4oD these days and I’m sure she has at least one box-set).

Director of BBC Television Danny Cohen.
Director of BBC Television Danny Cohen (Source: Inside the BBC).

In fact, one would expect Cohen to know better than to invoke this concept given that his employer recently axed BBC3 as an on-air channel, moving it online to cut costs and in recognition of its tech-savvy natural viewership. Will this draw younger people away from box-sets and streaming services?

“I believe it’s the right thing to do: young audiences – the BBC3 audience  are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world,” said director-general Tony Hall.

Leaving overpaid BBC apparatchiks out of it, the struggle for superiority between British and American drama rumbles on. Breaking Bad or Doctor Who? Sherlock or Mad Men? Box-sets or ‘average families’?

As my comments about Mr Cohen’s dichotomy suggest, I don’t think that we’re asking the right question when we pit the two against each other. The reality is that we are consuming media in new ways that allow for a powerful mixed ecology to exist – you can watch the Great British Bake Off on BBC One then stream House of Cards on Netflix, for instance. The permutations are endless and the possibilities are global.

The Beeb can’t compete with American budgets, of course – that’s why we get a swathe of three-part ‘mini-dramas’, which seem a little lightweight when compared to sprawling, operatic shows like The Wire. On the other hand, comedies like 30 Rock arguably show the limitations of the US model by lucratively overstaying their welcome, whereas In The Loop knocked out a near-perfect three seasons before signing off with a bang.

Prosaic it might be, but the answer simply is that neither model is inherently better. I loved True Detective, but I also loved Jane Campion’s similarly lush-looking Top of the Lake, co-produced by our old muckers at BBC Two.

There are things I could do without from both American and British telly – for the latter, HBOs apparent policy of keeping the mouth-breathers happy with a snippet of female nudity each episode is as tiresome as it is sexist. For the former, doctrinaire comedy from Footlights graduates and anodyne copies of American shows wouldn’t be missed.

(One of the few acceptable Footlights graduates on telly)
(One of the few acceptable Footlights graduates on telly) (Source: Taken by Matt Lee for the short film Freedom Fry)

But fundamentally, with delivery models improving and a growing number of ways for young writers and directors to showcase their creativity, the viewer is always the winner.


Fearghus Roulston

Fearghus was tempted into training as a journalist after an injudicious exposure to the Tintin books at an early age. He worked in several content marketing and writing jobs before starting at Clowdy, where he deals with blogging, social media and other non-Tintin or international espionage-related activities.