The quality of life does seem to be higher for a good show on cable versus network television. Many great series on cable aren’t cut short as quickly as on network TV. They’re more often allowed to play out the stories their creators intended (though that’s not always the case: Deadwood is a notable example). Perhaps there is something to be said that there’s a larger quantity of intelligent, or at least quality, television available in the UK.
But even that is complicated. The X-Files, for example, probably should have ended a season or two sooner, so the longest possible life isn’t necessarily the best fate for a good show. Even when we’re talking about great-till-the-end shows and trying to contrast their fates to similar ones in the U.K., we should remember something. There are tons more episodes of Arrested Development or Community than comparable British shows like The IT Crowd.
It hurts more when a network cancels a show too soon (especially one like Firefly, that could have kept being so awesome), but the end result isn’t that different when the show creator decides to stop, versus having the network pull the plug. Even if NBC decided to end The Office seasons ago, when it should have, it still would have been on longer than its British counterpart.
Of course there’s the obvious argument: I listed a lot of good shows here, but most of them are found on channels that come with a hefty price tag. The United Kingdom has expensive digital cable as well, but so many of their best shows are on either the BBC or ITV. The latter is funded by advertising, and the former supported by a television license that’s only around £150/year. It might not be free (although ITV technically is, you don’t have the option to buy a television and only watch ITV; the license is a requirement for everyone with a TV), but they get much more quality for so much less cost.
That has its own considerations: do shows in Great Britain rely as much on ratings as shows do here? Dependence on that could be a valid criticism of our system, or an indication of possible difference in viewing habits between our two cultures (each ideas for separate studies). Either way, I have a tip.
If you love smart television, watch some of the shows above like Community or Fringe. Bug your friends to watch them. If ratings on smart shows go up, not only will they last longer, then we’ll get more of the same. If our TV overall really isn’t as good as that in the U.K. (and I’m not willing to concede the point across the board), then perhaps we’re the ones to blame. If we’re that upset about it, we should try doing something, rather than just throwing up our hands in despair and importing content from elsewhere.
My own television habits are sporadic, focusing mostly on recommendations from friends. Thus I only see the good stuff, which might be why I’m not too fussed by the quality of American programming compared to British: although I love the latter, I also see a lot of wonderful television made for and by us Yanks. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and the library I do so at minimal cost. So, I know it’s out there, and that’s why it’s going too far to say that American television is utter crap compared to British, or that British television is always much smarter or better than American.
Next time you lust after your favorite shows from across the pond, wondering why we don’t have such here: remember that we do have similar quality television, and that theirs isn’t just freely graced to them by the BBC. Also be grateful for the close relationship our two countries have, displayed in how much we share our media, and thus how relatively easy it is for us to get access to these shows.
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