On 22 November 1980, 21.6 million people in the UK tuned in to discover the answer to the year’s most ubiquitous question: who shot JR?
This was a remarkably large audience, by any standards. But it was all the more impressive when you consider that, historically, Brits aren’t really that fussed about American television.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not entirely immune to its charms. In the 1970s, for example, The Six Million Dollar Man and the Fonz were on just as many toyshop shelves and button badges as Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. But that episode of Dallas (broadcast 17 years to the day after the city’s other most infamous shooting) remains the only US import to have topped the annual UK TV charts in the last 60 years. To find another, you’d have to go all the way back to Wagon Train in 1959.
In fact, foreign imports barely ever figure in the UK’s top 40 most-watched programmes of the week, let alone the year. As a nation, the shows we watch in significant numbers are almost exclusively British-made.
At the same time, barely a day goes by when we don’t hear the death knell of traditional British broadcasting being sounded, amidst much feverish talk of viewers migrating in droves from boring old BBC and ITV to the shiny on-demand Shangri-La of streaming services. As Anna Leszkiewicz wrote earlier this month, Netflix, Amazon and Now TV now boast 15.4 million UK subscribers, while viewers have been cancelling their BBC licence fees at a rate of almost one million a year since 2013.
All of which begs the obvious question: if this is the future of television, then where are all the homegrown hits that British viewers so clearly prefer actually going to come from?
So far, there’s precious little evidence that subscription video-on-demand services are keen to provide them. In 2017, Netflix and Amazon spent around £150m on British-made content – which doesn’t leave much spare change once The Crown, The Grand Tour and Black Mirror are accounted for – compared to £2.1bn invested in UK programming by BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky (along with a few other smaller players).
Of course, it’s possible that, once British subscriptions reach a certain threshold, the new players will increase their spend on domestic content. But the Netflix/Amazon model is geared towards programmes with a global appeal – which often translates as a euphemism for “American” – so it’s a stretch to imagine them ever buying the rights to, say, Coronation Street, to say nothing of the fate of live, interactive entertainment behemoths like The X Factor and Strictly.
Is there a danger, then, that market forces could eventually bring about the same US cultural hegemony on television as already exists in the film industry? Though a European invention, cinema has always had Hollywood as its centre of gravity; whereas with television, local content providers, as I suppose we must now call them, have traditionally taken the biggest market share.
In the UK, indeed, the direction of travel has been firmly away from America in recent decades. Back in the day, the BBC and ITV would regularly show imports like Starsky & Hutch and The Rockford Files in prime-time slots, guaranteeing them big audiences. (Though these audiences were never, it bears repeating, as big as those watching Sale of the Century, George and Mildred or Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!)
Since the 80s, however, such fare has generally been shunted into late night slots, or onto minor channels. That’s why eyebrows were raised a couple of years ago when ITV started showing Lethal Weapon – a show with “11pm on 5 USA” written all over it – at 9pm on Fridays.
Ironically, Britain’s cold shoulder came just as American television was entering its golden age, denying the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men the mass UK audience once enjoyed by, say, The Dukes of Hazzard. And while many have sought these shows out on DVD, streaming services and belated terrestrial broadcasts on “minority” channels, we’ve no real way of knowing how just how many.
Similarly, while we have a reasonable idea of what Britain is currently watching on the boring, old-fashioned, corner-of-your-living room telly – the most-watched shows of 2018 were Bodyguard, I’m A Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent, Doctor Who, The Great British Bake Off, Call the Midwife and Coronation Street, plus of course the World Cup – establishing definitive viewing figures for subscription video-on-demand is like trying to pin down a cloud.
According to YouGov research, around 1.3 million UK Netflix subscribers watched Stranger Things in the week of its second series launch in late 2017. Which is not bad, but it’s around seven times fewer than the number who regularly tune in to watch Brenda Blethyn’s Vera tramping around Northumberland in a floppy fishing hat. That’s a show that I’m guessing you probably read a lot less about.
Similarly, Game of Thrones – often trumpeted as the world’s biggest TV show – boasts around 6.4 million “demand impressions” in the UK. That’s a frankly huge figure for a programme that’s not free-to-air – but the Mother of Dragons is still getting her arse comprehensively kicked by the midwives of Nonnatus House. (And besides, whatever the country of origin on the crate, Game of Thrones is clearly as British as Wimbledon and peeling sunburn.)
If your only experience of British television is what’s written in newspapers, magazines and blogs, you might be forgiven for thinking everyone has already sacked off old-school telly in favour of Netflix. That’s because critics are always keen to position themselves at the leading edge of cultural trends and, let’s face it, Narcos is a much cooler name to drop than Grantchester – even if millions more people actually prefer James Norton’s bicycling vicar to Wagner Moura’s Colombian drug kingpin.
That said, TV trends are about more than the raw numbers, and it’s the viewing habits of a specific demographic – Millenials, Gen Zedders and beyond – that may ultimately prove the biggest game-changer. The average BBC One viewer is now aged 61, and even over at one-time youth channel E4, is 48. Young people are deserting “traditional” telly for American-dominated platforms like YouTube and, yes, Netflix – where they’re as loyal to the brand as the content – at an astonishing rate.
Younger than that, the Atlantic drift is even more acute: despite the heroic efforts of CBeebies and CBBC – every middle-class parents’ digital childminder of choice – only around 1 per cent of new programming across the UK’s 30+ dedicated children’s channels is made in Britain.
In that sense, perhaps the argument is already lost; when the old broadcasting order finally crumbles, don’t be surprised if it barely merits a shrug from a generation raised at the teat of US streaming giants. Alternatively, we might all be watching shows from China by then, who knows? But with arguably the finest broadcasting legacy of any nation on Earth – I mean, Breaking Bad is all very well, but it’s no Beiderbecke Affair, is it? – it would be a crying shame if we let British telly roll over and die without a fight.
Oh, and it was Kristin, by the way. Who shot JR. I forget why, but it seemed terribly important at the time.
Paul Kirkley is the TV critic for Waitrose Weekend.