Watching Americans with TV

Last Christmas when I was back in the UK I became obsessed with Channel 4’s Gogglebox, a reality show where we watch people watching television. An unbeatable premise executed to perfection, it was just the right mix of sociology, sitcom, soap opera and vox pop. Upon returning to the US, I learnt Gogglebox was to be re-made in America as The People’s Couch by socialite reality cable network Bravo. Bravo has never cared about representing the American public before so it seemed a curious choice of import. Saying that, Channel 4 is not exactly a public service channel anymore either.

When Gogglebox starting airing last year, the idea of watching TV viewers on TV was already familiar to British audiences. The Royle Family, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the last 20 years, largely consisted of a family sitting in their living room with the TV on. Football fans have been watching pundits watch Premier League games on Sky Sports Soccer Saturday for decades now. The notion of TV re-capping TV wasn’t news either. One of our biggest comedies of recent years TV Burp was a retrospective of the week’s TV with irreverent commentary from offbeat entertainer Harry Hill.

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday: Watching pundits watch football.

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday: Watching pundits watch football.

Gogglebox wasn’t the first attempt at this idea on British television, just the first version of it that people wanted to watch and channels would want to commission. In the early 2000s, the live late-night Channel 4 panel show Flipside TV had celebrity guests providing running commentary on TV programmes airing at the same time. Its graveyard slot meant there was no danger of losing viewers to other channels, but Gogglebox eased the format into primetime by having it recount the previous week’s TV. Flipside TV also didn’t have two of Gogglebox’s prime draws; the public and TV clips.

The concept is not exactly unheard of in American TV either. The couch-potato sitcoms of the ‘80s and ‘90s such as Roseanne and The Simpsons added a layer of realism to the depiction of American family life by showing characters in front of the TV, although the shows they watched were largely invented or embellished. E!’s The Soup trawls through clips of the week’s TV with mocking commentary from comedian Joel McHale, in a format very similar to TV Burp. But it’s invariably a specific kind of bad and bizarre reality TV that’s always seen ironically and functions as material.

Who are we watching?

Who are we watching?

The format of The People’s Couch is virtually the same as Gogglebox. We watch reactions to and conversations about TV programmes of the past week from different sets of viewers (families, couples, friends) who re-appear each week. Participants all watch the same programmes; although we suspect some of them have been prompted to. Each segment centres on a specific show, which tends to be popular, new or somehow different. We flip between viewers depending on who has the most interesting or entertainment reaction, and we get substantial extracts from TV shows so we know specifically what they are reacting to.

There are, however, minor changes that make all the difference. Gogglebox tries to be as representative as possible of the diversity of British society in terms of class, race, age, ethnicity, sexuality and region. This is a legacy of Channel 4’s social concern and inclusivity as a broadcaster which it used to have in spades and still rears its head occasionally. The People’s Couch tries to be as representative as possible of the diversity of Bravo viewers, which means sassy women and gay men of more than one ethnicity. This is the difference between broadcasting and narrowcasting in a nutshell.

Before there were people's couches there was Gogglebox!

Before there were people’s couches there was Gogglebox!

Gogglebox shows viewers from all over the UK while The People’s Couch doesn’t stray far from the Hollywood axis preferred by TV producers for geographical convenience. It’s remarkable to see middle-class families on a network that typically won’t bother with people worth less than a million but there’s a socio-economic cut-off point in The People’s Couch that there isn’t in Gogglebox. This is probably more about the relative affordability of digital TV in Britain compared to exorbitant US cable costs, which prevents many lower-income homes from getting extensive TV service and disenfranchises them from participation in the national TV conversation.

The biggest mistake made by The People Couch was chopping Gogglebox’s running time of an hour in half and losing the original’s voiceover. Our attachment to and affection for the viewers we see every week is what makes Gogglebox so compelling and moving. Without a voiceover giving us backgrounds and biographies of the people featured and the time to get to know them, their relationships and routines, The People’s Couch only manages superficial glimpses of its real-life stars. It makes them seem shallower than their UK equivalents, which is regrettable because they’re not (necessarily), just represented without depth or empathy.

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