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When is the BBC not the BBC? When it’s BBC America.

As a British expat living in the USA, I feel a warm sense of family whenever I see or hear the term ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’.

"BBC logo"

Dear old Auntie Beeb, as she is known affectionately by us Brits.  Rather like that slightly embarrassing older relative who occasionally tries to shun her natural station in life in order to appear more hip, more with it, more modern.  Sometimes she gets it hopelessly wrong and when she does, she is genuinely cringeworthy.

But when she gets it right (and more often than not, she does) she is worth listening to.  Plays, chat shows, light entertainment, news, events, sports, unbiased (arguably) political discussion, original dramas…..the list goes on and on, and all immaculately produced (well, most of the time, given the limitations of budget).  And of course if you don’t like what’s on one BBC channel then maybe there’s something better on another – there are several.

Funded by the annual ‘License Fee’ in Britain (a fee of roughly $250 payable – by law – every year by every household in Britain that has a TV), Auntie is commercial free, has no sponsors to please, no favors to pay back and has only one overriding remit: to produce quality programming that has something for everyone.

As such, the Beeb has for generations been a bastion of high quality content across multiple genres.  OK, she loses her way every now and again, but she always finds her way back, and when she does she usually comes back stronger than ever.

I grew up watching the BBC.  Some of my very fondest memories are of BBC Children’s programs when I was young, watching Liverpool on ‘Match of the Day’ with my father, snorting with laughter at ‘Morecambe and Wise’ on Christmas evening as the entire family, replete after a giant turkey, collapsed onto sofas, armchairs and anything else with padding.

When you move to another country, it is those sentimental ties that are the hardest to sever and it was therefore with delight that I discovered BBC America.  That familiar logo, an icon as recognizable to me as the Chevy bow-tie or the yellow school bus are to Americans, instantly told at me that I had found a home away from home.

Over the last four years however, I have become increasingly aware that this foreign relative, despite the familiar family name, is a pale imitation of the original.  She is Danny de Vito’s Vincent to Schwarzenegger’s Julius, she is Odile rather than Odette.

I understand completely that some shows that run on the Beeb in Britain would not draw large audiences in the US.  British politics or current events are unlikely to resonate, for example.  But what I do wonder is why BBC America seems to be slanting so much of its programming towards the genuinely shallow end of the gene pool.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that, of all the quality programming produced monthly by the BBC in Britain, BBC America chooses to offer up, broadly speaking, the most vacuous.

For instance, on the day of writing, the BBC is devoting a third if its 24 hours of programming to…Gordon Ramsay.  I know its not a bad show.  Some parts in fact can be quite funny.  But 8 hours of cooking related programming (or 9 if you include an hour of Jamie Oliver’s American Road Trip)?  Seriously?

Then there’s period drama The Tudors, a show that BBC America chooses to promote as an exploration of how much shagging went on in the Royal Court of 16th century England.

There’s Doctor Who.  OK, I don’t mind Doctor Who but on Christmas Day, if I recall correctly, BBC America scheduled 24 hours straight of Doctor Who, presumably thinking that if people were slaving over the range for much of the day anyway that they wouldn’t want to watch Gordon and Jamie on TV, and that no other BBC show was sufficiently ‘festive’.

There’s Top Gear.  Nope, can’t fault that.  Excellent show.  On the other hand, even the best programming can become tired when repeated for the dozenth time.

"Graham Norton"

And finally, panel quiz shows.  But rather than using an existing show (such as the award winning and already popular Stephen Fry’s ‘Qi’ for instance), BBC America decided to go with a new panel show hosted by Graham Norton – a show incidentally that is not actually running on the BBC in Britain.  Presumably the reasoning for this choice is that his face is already known to BBC America viewers so, as if hour after hour of his chat show were not enough, we were recently introduced to his new panel game show ‘Would You Rather’.  To whet our appetites for this, the BBC America trailer tantalized us with such game questions as “Would you rather your daughter had no friends, or was as slut”.  Or (even better), “Would you rather watch your parents have sex every day for a year, or join in once to make it stop”.

I’m not making this up.

One could say that, in Britain, the BBC lives a relatively secure life, propped up by the annual windfall of the License Fee and insulated from harsh commercial realities.

Not so BBC America.  With no publicly funded nourishment upon which to rely, BBC America at some point in its infancy decided that the road to commercial success in the New World was paved with innuendo, titillation and repetition, and is pursuing its chosen path with dogged determination.

Once every couple of years, the BBC comes under pressure from one group or another.  “The License Fee is unfair and outdated” goes the argument.  “The BBC should have its financial security blanket removed and be forced out into the big, bad world with everyone else.”

Well, having now seen how the BBC fares in this big bad world, I have to disagree.  Once the genie is out of the bottle it could never be forced back, and the BBC in Britain would begin the slow tailspin towards mediocrity, forced as it is in the US to chase ratings and pander to the desires of those who require nothing from their programming other than cheap thrills, vulgarity and empty celebrity.

A tragic prospect to be sure, and one that I have little doubt is probably far closer to being realized than at any time in the past.

As for my home away from home, the Atlantic seems a lot bigger than it did fours years ago.

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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Entertainment, Media

 

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