Look at the stuff that airs on, say, a Sunday night on PBS in America: sophisticated nature documentaries, grownup dramas about complicated people in complex situations. This is what is considered niche in the U.S. Then look at what’s on the major broadcast networks on any given evening: idiotic sitcoms, straightforward crime procedurals. This is what is considered mainstream in the U.S.
When you look at British TV, everything is reversed. Right now — 9:30pm — I’m watching an amazing documentary on Channel 4 called The Elephant: Life After Death, which is about scientists in Africa turning hidden cameras on the wildlife that slowly devours the carcass of an elephant. Channel 4 is, on Sunday nights, two episodes into a fantastic drama about the Middle East called The Promise, which is split between telling the stories of a British soldier in Palestine after World War II and his tourist granddaughter getting caught up in — and learning about — current events in Israel.
The idiotic sitcoms and straightforward crime procedurals — mostly American imports — are definitely available here, but they’re relegated to the niche channels.
I have no doubt that both The Elephant and The Promise will end up on PBS soon, where even fewer people — in a nation of 300 million plus — will watch them than watched them in the U.K., with a population only 20 percent that. Why? I refuse to believe that Americans are any less intelligent that the British. I refuse to believe that the British are any less desirous of escapism than Americans are. Channel 4 is not commerical-free, like the BBC is: it depends on advertising, just like the American networks do.
I’m not saying there isn’t idiotic shit on British TV. It just doesn’t dominate like it does in America.
Why? It’s a big mystery to me.