The British are coming!

How and why we’re suddenly enamored with British TV. Why brevity is the soul of British wit

Our republic has already seen two invasions from the U.K.: one full of red-coat-clad soldiers, and the other of dapper skinny-suit-wearing Beatles in the 1960s. Now there’s a third wave of Brits causing more than a mere ripple this side of the Atlantic–and they’re in the TV business.

We could bamboozle you with stats and figures about the success of British TV in the U.S. in recent years, like the 24 million of us who tuned in for Downton Abbey’s third season, but we don’t need to. You already know that the likes of BBC’s Luther, Doctor Who, and Sherlock are enjoying unfettered popularity in the U.S. With the recent BBC America premiere of Britain’s latest export, ITV’s Broadchurch, which was so popular in the U.K. that there was a visible surge on the national grid as the Brits made tea in unison during the commercial breaks, we thought it an opportune time to figure out just what it is about British TV that we find so appealing.

they just give the plot the time it needs to unfold. No more, and no less

One common theme is the number of episodes in a season. There’s no real hard and fast rule as to how many there need be in Great Britain. HBO classifies Parade’s End, a WWI era drama staring Benedict Cumberbatch, as a “mini-series,” but the British don’t. Any more than 3 episodes and they seem content enough to call it a season as much they would another show. Sherlock (also staring Cumberbatch) has just three episodes in a season. That’s not to say our transatlantic friends are lazy, they just give the plot the time it needs to unfold. No more, and no less.

Broadchurch
Broadchurch

Broadchurch

Image Credit: © BBC

Doctor Who
Doctor Who

Doctor Who

Image Credit: Adrian Rogers for ©BBC Worldwide

Luther
Luther

Luther

Image Credit: Robert Viglasky for © BBC

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Any writer will tell you that word limits are painful but they exist for a reason. It keeps the story efficient, well written and clear, something of which British TV producers noticeably have an understanding. The British philosophy is very much that if it’s a three episode story then tell it in three, if it needs more then give it more, but ask yourself: does it really need more?

The British philosophy is very much that if it’s a three episode story then tell it in three

This is a small detail but it’s an important one. The number of episodes in a series has an impact on the narrative, viewer patience (and interest) and the overall quality. Designing and executing a TV show with the audience and their experience in mind is the primary concern–and not how many add slots you can squeeze into a season.

The BBC is able to think of viewers first because every TV-owning house in the kingdom has to pay an annual “license fee”, which goes on to fund the network (not too dissimilar to subscription TV here in the U.S.), so it doesn’t have to worry about commercial revenues to pay its bills in the same way that American broadcast networks do.

Maybe this is just one of the reasons that we Americans love what the British Council calls the wit, originality, costumes, acting and accents of British TV. The British are coming, lets watch.

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