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Watching Americans with TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2014 by Tom Steward

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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Watching Telly with Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a taste of my own media medicine. I’ve been watching British TV with an American and absorbing rather than catapulting those oh-so-clever anthropological field notes about the bizarre idiosyncracies of a national TV culture. And what’s even more humbling is that I’ve been doing it with someone far, far better at it and more succinctly expressive than me (see-that sentence only needed one ‘far’). G stayed with me in July and from time to time we embarked on the daunting prospect of sitting down to watch British TV. I say ‘daunting’ because I want G to move here next year, and it felt like the onscreen lack of Real Housewives after their most recent divorces and Kardashians sporting the previous week’s surgical alterations might set back the emigration propaganda campaign several ages. G found a lot of British culture in catch-up mode, especially when it came to fashion, so finding programmes on TV we had watched together in the states months before weren’t too much of a surprise for her, though it was pleasantly for me. I thought we were at least three or four years behind. Turns out we are on the meat (great drama, comedy and reality) but not on the gristle (celeb fucking and shitcoms)-thanks ITV2!

 

Keeping up with the Kardashians...barely.

 

 

But we had a bigger problem than an out-of-date hat. British TV was ‘weird’, ‘so weird’ and ‘weird’. For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word ‘Mummy’. I vigorously protested this as a case of cultural alienation but didn’t exactly have the backing of the TV stations themselves, who throughout the month defected to G’s side by broadcasting footage of old men arguing with Simon Cowell about the existence of a Worzel Gummidge musical before Pertwee-lisping through pop hits or swapping their tried-and-tested flagship mobile spectacle reality shows for season finales where half, quarter and minus wits get berated in four rooms by several regional accents. Round One to G.

The Apprentice Indoors

 And Round Two to her as well. It was through G that I realised something that had never before occurred to me; that American TV, even the rough stuff, is by and large far more innocent and sanitary (I mean this more than sanitized-you’ll see why when I tell you what show made me realise) than British TV. What was the breakthrough programme? Why-eye, Geordie Shore, the Return-to-Oz style dark sequel to Byker Grove. An identically-designed British re-make of MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, it eschews the likeably harmless original premise of laughing at mutantly muscled, beboobed and tanned buffoons for an exponentially grotty and lewd indoor dogging video and creepily crass cock-size discussion show. All the lovably hare-brained schemes and dopey catchphrases of the original sunk  sewage-like into ruthless dirty-dicks campaigns of professional fornication and fuck-punctuated verbal cesspools. I initially thought this was just censorship differences but it’s also about our predilections as a nation for sleazy Sodom-and-Gomorrah docs set in seventh circles like Ibiza and late-night town centres. Why we want these on TV baffles me just as much as why we want them in reality. G said all that in one word: ‘nasty’.

Byker Grove was never like this...

Some of G’s confusion derived from how British TV was scheduled and broken down. She found the advert breaks interminably long, which at first I refused to accept from an American, until I realised that US TV commercial interludes are short but frequent, and just because UK TV is covertly irritating in its spread of adverts doesn’t mean it’s any better, worse in its sneakiness possibly. US TV timings are rigorously routinised-all programmes begin on an hour or half-hour. We’re far more casual with our timings, at least on terrestrial TV-a 10-minute documentary on bees here, a 10 no 12 minute news spot there, oh look, there’s an independently-made short film that’s exactly 3 minutes long for some reason. I can see how it would irritate someone brought up on regimented TV time, but I was left feeling rather proud of our irregular randomness.

There were some notable successes. G was an instant addict of Come Dine with Me, proving that it is a faultless universal formula (something like ‘Idiot + House + Cooking x4=Compulsive Sneering’) and that the world is brought together by its response to the show’s contestants with the global chant ‘Where do they get these people?’.

Born in the USA

Posted in BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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