There is no shortage of television and streaming channels in the US. For Brit TV fans, this is good news, because more of these channels, even some heretofore unlikely ones, are adding UK content to their programming line-ups. Welcome to the 21st century British Invasion.
First, a bit of history.
I think it’s safe to say that PBS and its Masterpiece programs, which have been airing stateside since 1971, created the first generation of British TV fans in America. Hand-in-hand with PBS are the local public TV stations that have been running syndicated Brit shows since about the same time, thanks to distributors such as American Public Television, which brought Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the US in 1974 (under APT’s previous name of Eastern Educational Television Network).
During the late ’70s and ’80s, the Arts & Entertainment Network (now A&E) brought more Brit TV goodies to viewers, including Lovejoy. Roughly a decade later, Netflix came on the scene with its DVD-rental-by-mail service in 1997, and cable operators across the US began adding BBC America to their basic cable line-ups in 1998 — and both gave existing and new Brit TV fans a host of additional programs from the Beeb, ITV, and Channel 4 to choose from on disc and on telly.
Then in the first decade of the 2000s, HBO premiered the Golden Globe and Emmy® Award-winning Band of Brothers to critical and audience acclaim, while Netflix launched its subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) service and Acorn Media (now known as the RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn brand) was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Brit TV DVD market. Other premium cable and satellite channels also began dipping their toes in UK telly waters, including Showtime, Starz, SundanceTV, and DirecTV.
Everything up until this point was the bomb-diggity for stateside Anglophile and British ex-pat viewers. And then things got even better.
PBS premiered Downton Abbey in January 2011, and the brand that Time magazine dubbed “chief curators of the best Brit TV” got a partner in crime (wink, wink) when Acorn TV launched in July 2011, with titles including The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs Downstairs.
Both Downton and Acorn TV were industry game-changers.
The 2014 Season 4 premiere of Downton gave PBS its highest rating and audience figures ever for a drama — a 9.7 against US Households with an average 15.5 million viewers. Many episodes during the show’s five seasons to date even bested the competition in ratings and share, and made PBS a serious Sunday night contender for eyeballs against its commercial broadcast and cable and premium cable counterparts. And the SVoD channel demonstrated that serving a niche audience with curated, high-quality content from the UK (and increasingly from other territories in the British Commonwealth, as well) can develop and grow a dedicated following: In 2013, Acorn TV’s subscriber base tripled in size and the number of website visits nearly quintupled in the last six months of that year.
And entertainment industry execs took notice, even before those numbers were announced.
In June 2013, Amazon Prime Instant Video became the exclusive SVoD service for Seasons 1-5 of Downton, and in September of the same year, Hulu announced its mega-deal with the BBC, which included thousands of episodes from 100+ of the Beeb’s titles. And in what was a first for one of the big five US commercial broadcast networks, NBC premiered Dracula, its first scripted drama with a mostly British cast.
Although Dracula was cancelled after one season, NBC is moving forward with another Brit TV series: the sci-fi dramedy You, Me & the End of the World (called You, Me & The Apocalypse on Sky 1 in the UK), which will debut during the Peacock Network’s 2015/2016 Fall Season. Others of the big five that have or will have their own Brit TV firsts are the CW (the CW!), which recently debuted the half-hour Brit drama Dates, and Fox (Fox!), whose period drama Houdini & Doyle will premiere next year.
So far this year, the usual suspects of PBS, local public TV stations, BBC America, and Acorn TV have brought us numerous (and awesome) Brit TV titles, including Poldark, Shetland, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and The Driver. Programs on their slates of upcoming shows — Indian Summers, Detectorists, the Luther special, and Partners in Crime, to name but a few — will make their US debuts in the coming months.
Over on cable, The Casual Vacancy debuted on HBO, (the brilliant) Fortitude on Pivot, and Babylon on SundanceTV. And if you haven’t been thrilling to the sci-fi hit Humans (one of the few remakes I actually love), currently screening on AMC, well, you must be mighty busy to miss it. And in the works are The Night Manager, coming to AMC in 2016, The Dresser, which is expected to premiere on Starz later this year, and new seasons of fan favorites such as HBO’s Game of Thones and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.
On the surface, it looks like Amazon took a cue from Hulu and Netflix by debuting hit UK shows in the US as streaming exclusives under its Prime Instant Video SVoD service, such as Catastrophe, the romcom that is a veritable hit on both sides of the pond. The retail giant also expanded its relationship with PBS this year, a move that adds more of the public broadcast network’s titles as SVoD exclusives.
Hulu continued its Hulu Original Series in 2015 with the third season of Moone Boy, but with the show having concluded as a series, it’s anyone’s guess as to which Brit program might be next on the Originals list. Regardless, Hulu has released a number of other Brit TV titles that are new to the States, including Drifters and Cockroaches within the past few weeks.
At Netflix, folks on both sides of the pond are waiting with bated breath for the new seasons of Happy Valley, Hinterland, and Peaky Blinders, and there’s quite a lot of interest in the Netflix Original Series The Crown, as well.
Acorn TV, too, has more British and Aussie goodies on the way, including Season 7 of Doc Martin and Season 3 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. New feature-length episodes of a hit Irish crime drama/mystery and more new-to-the-US titles are also on the way. I’ll have more details for you about these when Acorn makes the official announcements.
Which brings us to the channels that have taken the bold step of adding British content to their programming schedules, most of which left me gobsmacked. Already noted above are the CW and Fox. (By the way, if you haven’t watched Dates yet, it’s good.) But it’s the cable channels where the real stunners are.
Such as Discovery Life. The channel, whose drama-filled reality and reality-based series include Emergency 24/7 and The Day I Almost Died, premiered the hilarious 50 Ways to Kill Your Mother (Mammy overseas), the travel/adventure show featuring an Irish celeb and his mum. (Hopefully, it did well enough in the ratings for Discovery to pick up Season 2, because it is a blast.) Then there’s E!, better known for entertainment news and red carpet coverage of the major US awards shows. It had its first scripted series with The Royals, which got its second season before the first even premiered.
Also in the “Wait, what?” category are the fictionalized (Canadian) biopic Tut on Spike, home of the tattoo-themed Ink Master, and the 2016 premiere of the period drama Saints & Strangers on the National Geographic Channel, which features mostly reality series and documentaries.
Less shocking but still a bit “Huh?”-inducing are Esquire Network’s premiere of Spotless later this year, as well as the 2016 premieres of And Then There Were None on Lifetime and War and Peace on A+E Networks’ A&E, History, and Lifetime channels.
No surprise at all, really, is FX’s fall 2015 debut of The Bastard Executioner.
That’s ten new British/Commonwealth series on twelve US channels that aren’t known for UK telly content. And that is a coup for the genre.
I suppose one could argue that it isn’t a demand for British telly specifically, but one for quality, scripted dramas, that has these programs on the schedules of such a wide variety of US channels. And I would say that that is, for the most part, accurate. (If you also follow the goings-on in the foreign-language TV space at The Euro TV Place, then you know that several hit dramas from the Scandinavian and other European countries are being remade in, rather than imported to, the States.)
However, one shouldn’t, dare I say mustn’t, ignore or diminish the role that British (and international) TV has played in the scripted drama arena, regardless of where shows are produced. Would Esquire Network have been as interested in Spotless were it not for British (and other Euro) crime dramas and Downton‘s Emmy-nominated Brendan Coyle being such hits in the States? Ditto that for Fox’s Houdini & Doyle vis-à-vis the international hit called Sherlock. Whether yea or nay, you get my point.
So, yes, quality, in general, is a factor, as are British sensibilities about the demonstration of quality. As the demand for shows infused with these not-necessarily-mutually-exclusive attributes grows stronger and broader, the chances that even more US channels will look to the UK for content and/or co-production deals will probably increase with it.
And with that, the British Invasion of the 21st century will likely continue for many years, perhaps even multiple generations to come. Huzzah!
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