US-to-UK TV imports that deserved better

From Breaking Bad to Quantum Leap, Angel to S.H.I.E.L.D., Mark takes a look at US-to-UK TV imports' bumpier journeys...

Historically, US TV shows, particularly those that fall into the “cult” bracket, have had a bit of a rough ride in the schedules when they’ve arrived in the UK. In theory, it’s gotten easier to watch these shows in the age of multi-channel television, streaming services like Netflix, and the shortened release window between first transmission (or TX) and DVD.

Talk to anyone who remembers, and there are a litany of complaints about the handling of US TV shows from back in the day. BBC Two omitted or shuffled the order of certain episodes of The X-Files and Quantum Leap upon their UK TX; Channel 4 would cut down the family-unfriendly Angel for a pre-watershed slot and then pad out the hour with T4 gubbins; and Sky would swipe any flagship US import that did well on terrestrial TV, most memorably when they took Lost away from C4 at the height of the show’s popularity.

Not so long ago, it would be a matter of waiting for chunky VHS boxsets or, later, more compact DVD collections to watch the show as the creators intended, without shuffling, censorship or someone coming round your house and taking it off you until you pay a premium to watch the next season.

But as cable series and Netflix originals have thrived, it seem as if UK broadcasters have lost their appetite for importing some of the best US TV shows. Recently, Five announced that they were dropping a number of shows from their channels – Once Upon A Time, (after two seasons) Justified, (with only two more seasons to go) and perhaps most surprisingly, The Walking Dead.

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In the US, with Breaking Bad finished and Mad Men set to conclude within the next year or so, The Walking Dead is arguably the jewel in cable network AMC’s crown, frequently breaking records for the highest cable audience figures, as well as spawning a video game and plans for a spin-off series.

But Five is a channel that is currently getting its highest audience share from Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother, and the transition in viewing habits means there’s probably more advertising revenue in original reality shows for commercial broadcasters these days anyway.

It feels like there’s been a decline in acquisitions across the board, at least where the Freeview channels are concerned. Sky Atlantic hoovers up popular shows like Mad Men, Game Of Thrones and Girls, and has literally defined its name and brand on bringing those shows across the pond, while E4 tends to dominate the more successful of the US sitcoms, with How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and New Girl.

One of the major exceptions, as far as the Big Five (formerly known as terrestrial) channels are concerned, would be Channel 4’s coup with Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, a series that ties in to the biggest movie franchise going and also has the king of “cult TV”, Joss Whedon, working behind the scenes. But here’s another series that could find itself suffering from the same diminished viewership as The Walking Dead, once it arrives on UK screens proper.

As mixed reviews of the series would suggest, it feels like the series is being given more time than many series like it would get, both here and in the US, because of its connection to Marvel Studios, who already have plans to make some of their future series into Netflix originals rather than network shows.

Plus, the transatlantic difference between scheduling habits means that while Channel 4 started out showing Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D just days after it was broadcast in the US, it’s currently off air until March to account for the mid-season hiatus, and to plug the occasional fortnight-long gaps between episodes that are more customary to American viewers than Brits.

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It’s bound to come back with some fanfare, so close to the cinema release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but at the time of writing, they’re two episodes behind, and the fans who have stuck with it will have had plenty of time to catch up via other viewing methods before then. And so, we’d be surprised if the viewing figures for the second half of the season were anywhere close to as strong as the first half.

These could be the reasons that led to Five dropping the series. Fox is still showing The Walking Dead, and has adopted the practice of showing the current, fourth season the day after the US transmission, which seems to be the best way to retain viewers who might otherwise be tempted to watch their favourite series online, whether by fair means or foul. The option is still there to wait and watch it on TV.

But Justified and Once Upon A Time aren’t currently showing anywhere else. Netflix and iTunes have the episodes that have already been transmitted on UK TV, but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of new episodes on the streaming services. It comes down to waiting for Region 2 DVD releases, importing Region 1 versions, or finding the latest episodes by more dodgy online means. Fans of those shows are bound to feel that they deserved better.

Early adopters of Breaking Bad may remember that the first two seasons of the show were aired on 5USA, ridiculously late at night. At that time, nobody could have been too surprised that the viewing figures weren’t high enough to justify Five acquiring the remaining seasons, but Breaking Bad has gone on to become the poster child for the ways in which television viewing has diversified.

The reasonably short run of 62 episodes, combined with the compulsive pace at which you end up watching them once you’re on the hook, means that you can probably devour the entire series in the space of a month’s free trial with Netflix. When the series was still headed towards its shattering finale, the streaming service made the series an emphatic selling point in their marketing, putting episodes online the day after AMC broadcast them in the States.

Even if it’s premature to call Breaking Bad the greatest TV show ever, there’s little doubt that it was amongst the very best that America had to offer at the time, and those who have discovered it in the UK have had to keep up with it by other means.

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The audience share of a channel like BBC Four isn’t huge, but the demand was there – they probably could have simultaneously boosted their own ratings, as well as bringing a popular show to a wider audience, if they’d acquired the series in between importing dour Scandinavian crime dramas.

But there are other niche shows that aren’t getting the airing they deserve at all. It’s hard to immediately imagine shows as funny and innovative as Community or Archer fitting in with the more populist sitcoms on E4, but then a lot of the major Freeview broadcasters seem to have lost that enthusiasm for cult curiosities.

Even Comedy Central UK’s schedule is mostly comprised of Friends reruns these days, picking up the baton of endless Central Perk relays after E4 finally let it go. They’ve recently given The Middle a home after Sky One gave it up, but as the most obvious home for such funny, underappreciated shows, it’s disappointing that they’re primarily repeating tried-and-tested comedies.

Archer is up on Netflix, while Community gets much delayed screenings on Sony TV, a channel that tends to evoke frowns if you’re trying to recommend where people can see it. Both are there if you know what you’re looking for, but that makes it much harder to discover them by accident. They  have also had Region 2 DVD releases, and may have benefited from another shift in viewing habits- binge-watching.

Shows like Community, in particular, can be quite more-ish- I lost whole days watching it the first time through, and if you end up having all of the episodes at once by buying the DVDs, or downloading them, or streaming them, you’re not beholden to appointment viewing. It’s changing the way that we watch TV, but there’s not necessarily any indication that the producers responsible for the future of these shows have changed their viewpoints concordantly.

It’s not a problem that we have more ways to watch quality TV series legally, via streaming services and paid-for digital downloads. The problem is that not every new show is available via those services, and UK broadcasters have become less competitive because of those paid-for services, meaning that the potential UK audience for certain shows is considerably diluted.

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Breaking Bad and Community are series that convert new UK fans on DVD all the time, but both benefited from the online hype and buzz, warranting their Region 2 releases. But like Justified, a show that by all accounts is excellent, and The Walking Dead, a show that continues to be popular with fans, they’re all examples of shows that have been given short shrift by UK broadcasters.

Have you been frustrated by a UK channel dropping a series between seasons? Are there any US shows you have to recommend people go the extra mile to see? Are there any shows you’re still waiting to see in the UK for the first time? Let us know in the comments, and see if we can’t all find something new to watch.

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