Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tube tales

American television and British television are different. And in more than a few ways.

For one thing, American television treats its viewers like cattle, more specifically cash cows, which deliver milk through their eyeballs. British television (well, actually, I’m talking about the BBC) treats its audience like, well, taxpayers, extracting money directly from all of them regardless of how many hours they spending watching BBC programs and indeed regardless of whether they watch any BBC programs at all—as long as they own a television set.

While Americans have become well accustomed to paying for television content (originally to cable and satellite providers, more lately to certain web sites offering downloads), they tend to think of television as a free resource. It arrives through the air and is available for anyone with an aerial (soon a digital converter) to watch. The tradeoff is that you have to contend with commercial advertising. The idea of a television license is foreign to us. When I first came to Ireland, I was struck that one of the controversies going on was that politicians were talking about the possibility that maybe they would start charging households in cities and towns for water. People were up in arms. Water was an entitlement that people thought they had a right to for free. As someone who grew up in a virtual desert, I couldn’t believe that people expected to get their water for free but didn’t seem to question the idea that their government expected them to pay an annual license fee for the privilege of owning a television set.

Clearly, there is no such thing as a free lunch, so realistically television programming has to be paid for somehow. So, which method is fairer? The American content-for-eyeball-time model or the British pay-up-or-else model? Both systems have their upsides and downsides, but both turn out certain amounts of quality programming. It is considered hip and smart to deride American television as rubbish, but some of it must be pretty good because broadcasters all over the world pay lots of money to air U.S. TV shows. The Beeb, on the other hand, is rather legendary for the quality not only of its general programming (although it still has its share of dodgy reality programming and self-indulgent comedy shows) but also of its news services which are watched or listened to all over the world and represent a one-of-a-kind amalgamation of news and information services. I do not live in the UK, but if I did, I would hand over my license fee quite willingly, knowing that it was going to an organization that provides everything from the BBC World Service to Doctor Who. And, because the BBC is government supported, its viewers do not have to be bothered with commercial advertisements—unless you count the in-house ads, between programs, for the BBC itself. In Ireland (where I do live), I am sorry to report, the TV system, like so many things in Ireland (the health care system comes to mind as another example), is a strange mixture of two opposing systems which manages to take the worst bits of both. As in Britain, the Irish government requires a license fee from owners of television sets but, while UK TV is commercial free, Irish TV bombards its viewers with advertisements anyway. The only saving grace (if you can call it that) is that European regulations limit how often programs can be interrupted by commercials, so the situation isn’t quite as bad as the American advert free-for-all in which some programs seem to pause for sponsors’ messages every five minutes. Still, it is galling to be forced to fork over money to RTÉ (the Irish broadcaster) and to have to sit through commercials. Okay, thanks to my DVR I generally skip the commercials, but it’s the principle of the thing. Actually, thanks to a satellite dish that gives me hundreds of non-Irish channels, when left to my own devices, I generally skip RTÉ entirely (although the Missus is loyal to it), but that makes being extorted for money to support it even more annoying.

As an American, I was always taught that it was a bad thing for the government to be funding your television content, particularly in the case of TV and radio news. Through its power of the purse, the thinking went, the government would inevitably turn the news outlets into propaganda arms serving their own purposes. Much better to keep the government out of the news business (thanks to the First Amendment) and let the free market compete to come up with the news and information the general population wants and trusts. Now, after years of living someplace where the main broadcast sources of regional news are funded by governments, I have a somewhat different take on the matter. I still think that public funding carries a risk of creating a propaganda machine. But, while it is natural enough to think that the entity that pays the bills would be able to call that shots in how coverage is treated, that is not how it works out. It turns out that the BBC and RTÉ are sufficiently insulated from political pressure from the government of the day to prevent them from becoming mere mouthpieces. They do, on the other hand, have certain limitations written into their charters in an attempt to ensure some sort of fairness in political coverage. But the practical effect is to shield these journalists not only from the government but also from the free market. And by this, I mean not only the economic free market but also the free market of ideas. Particularly, in a country as small as Ireland, one sees the same few faces commenting and analyzing and being interviewed over and over—giving the impression of a very small circle of people in the media orbit.

The result in both the cases of the BBC and RTÉ is a worldview and mindset that sometimes seems at odds with the real world one encounters firsthand. For example, one cause célèbre in the news for some time has been a natural gas pipeline being built by Shell to bring gas from the Corrib gas field in the Atlantic for refining on land in County Mayo. To watch the RTÉ coverage, one would think that there is a universal groundswell of opposition among the local population to the project. But when you talk to locals, they tell you that people in the area welcome the project because of the jobs it brings and for its contribution to Ireland’s dicey energy situation and that the protestors invariably seen on TV are fulltime environmental activists, generally from Dublin. Now this sort of distorted coverage (to fit a standard media narrative) is common enough in America’s privately owned media universe as well, but at least Yanks can switch between MSNBC and Fox News if they want two sides to a story. People in Ireland have to go to the bother of buying a newspaper if they want a different perspective.

In a more serious case, the BBC found itself reprimanded four years ago for loose talk about the British government’s actions leading up to the invasion of Iraq. A BBC 4 radio presenter, Andrew Gilligan, speaking live on air basically asserted that the government knew full well that there were no WMD in Iraq before the invasion. The government took the unusual step of initiating an official inquiry into the matter to set the record straight. As much evidence and testimony were heard by the judge, Lord Hutton, the BBC coverage did everything to lead the public to believe that Tony Blair’s government was on the verge of receiving a devastating rebuke and unmasking of a nefarious plot to enter into war for no good reason. Instead, it was the BBC that was determined to be making things up. Lord Hutton’s delivery of his report was memorable because, in his traditional wig and robes and dry, aristocratic manner that seemed left over from the Edwardian age, it was amusing to hear him obliged to frequently use the phrase “sexed up” (from Gilligan’s original on-air charge) in discussing the matter. In the end, he concluded, while the stockpiles of WMD cited by the Bush and Blair governments were never found, there was absolutely no evidence that the Blair government knew in advance that they wouldn’t be there. For days after, commentators on the Beeb could be heard sounding like traumatized victims, plaintively questioning why they had been “attacked.”

In the end, the BBC continues to be a unique source of worldwide news and information, but no one who wants to be informed should rely on only one source of news. As the Gilligan case demonstrates, when a news organization is ensconced as an institution, it become awfully easy to report your opinion as fact in place of actually going out and finding real facts.

There are other quirks in having a national broadcaster. For example, if you have a hit TV show, as Doctor Who is in the UK, you can naturally expect it to have spinoffs and DVD packages, which is indeed the case. But you would also expect it to have more than 12 or 13 episodes a year and to have a regular time slot. This year the Doctor (true to his time-traveling ways) has bounced around on Saturday evening from 6:45 to 7:10 to 7:00 to taking a night off for the Eurovision Song Contest. For such a prominent show, you have to be pretty determined (or have a reliable DVR) to keep from missing it. (Computer users in the UK with broadband have a backup option, the BBC’s on-demand TV service.) Most of all, if you had a hit show like this, you wouldn’t just take a year off. But that is what is happening with Doctor Who. After the current series (which promises the return of his beloved lost companion Rose Tyler) and the usual Christmas Day special episode, the Doctor will be on hiatus until 2010. Can you imagine Fox doing this with American Idol or ABC with Lost?

This would be depressing news except for one additional fact. It has been announced that, upon the show’s return, the showrunner will be Steven Moffat, who has been the writer of the very best episodes in the revised show’s four-year run. These include the two-parter “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances,” which introduced the rogue time agent Capt. Jack Harkness, who was spun off into his own Torchwood series; “The Girl in the Fireplace,” in which the doctor had a bittersweet brief but lifelong romance with Madame de Pompadour; “Blink,” the award winning episode (involving malevolent statues) that was one of the scariest things I have ever seen on TV; and the recent two-parter “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead,” which introduced yet another of Moffat’s trademark time travel conundrums.

If I have to wait an extra year for more Doctor Who, it is at least good to know that he will return in excellent hands

-S.L., 12 June 2008

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