Syndicated to newspapers on 24 September 1966
Milton Shulman has
some astringent comments
to make on U.S. imports
WHENEVER British TV seems to have reached its nadir, there is always the consolation that its general output is higher technically, intellectually and dramatically than the average American programme.
No American police series has achieved the veracity, originality and authenticity of Z-Cars. None of their domestic comedy shows have the edge, bite or inventiveness of Steptoe and Son or Till Death Us Do Part.
They have nothing in the field of satire and wit to compare with Not So Much a Programme or Not Only… But Also. Their serious drama is practically non-existent. And the quality of their programmes about the arts and current affairs is well behind ours.
Observant readers will have noticed that all the British programmes I have named have come from the BBC. With the best will in the world, I have tried to recall a recent ITV series or programme that we could be proud of. With the possible exception of This Week, I can think of none.
The qualities most lacking in American programmes are daring and imagination. They are in the grip of a philosophical bogey known as Americanism.
In this context Americanism used to be identified with red-blooded independence, one-man-against-the-crowd, irreverent anarchy, suspicion of manners, contempt for conformity, resistance to authority.
In the entertainment world it nurtured talents like the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Bahl; it spawned biting and angry films like Lost Week-end, Fury, Modern Times, The Snake Pit, Dr. Strangelove, Nothing Sacred; it stimulated directors like Fritz Lang, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Lewis Milestone, Stanley Kubrick.
But in TV, Americanism means none of these things. The American way of life, judging from the small screen, means fear of the boss, reconciliation to violence, awe of authority, eagerness to be accepted, terror of loneliness, obsessive obsequiousness to religion, the omnipotence of law and order, fawning adulation of the family image, compulsive patriotism, reverence for good taste, and an imnibus [sic] creed that welfare and conscience of the individual must be subservient to the welfare and conscience of the community or State.
By and large these are the values and motives that guide the scriptwriters and producers of programmes like Perry Mason, Peyton Place, Bonanza, The Fugitive, Bewitched, Dr. Kildare, Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, The FBI and, oddly enough, even The Munsters.
They rock no boats, rattle no skeletons, question no accepted truths, mock no authoritative postures. They are the mental chewing gum of a society that wants its TV to produce only the fleeting flavour but never the continuing substance of real life.
For many months now there has hardly been a single American show that has reached the top twenty rated programmes.
And if I am told that this is just an accident of networking, it is clear from a study of the individual regional ratings that only Peyton Place has any substantial following in local areas.
Of course, to dismiss all American TV as vapid and toothless would be an unfair and stupid generalisation. The Defenders, in the framework of a crusading commentary on the inequalities of American justice, has often produced some gripping and telling episodes.
But most of the American shows we see here have nothing but their slickness to recommend them.
The dialogue is banal and the issues spurious in the series which aim at something dramatic. The comic programmes, with the exception of the Dick Van Dyke Show, are incredibly humourless and rely upon the crutch of maniacal laughter tracks to reinforce the illusion that they are actually funny.
This standard of taste and entertainment may be all that is possible in a medium that relies exclusively on advertising for its finance and therefore has to be guided by the precept “Thou shalt not offend” in a land where everyone is offendable.
But why should these programmes be foisted on us when it is quite clear that we can make better programmes of our own that our own people will much prefer?
The ration of 14 per cent foreign programmes that is allowed to ITV means in practice that the quota is used up almost exclusively for the purchase of popular American series. It means that on Channel Nine we see very little of serious American documentaries (which are often very good) and almost nothing of programmes that come from the Continent.
It is time, I think, that some thought be given to a more realistic quota formula. Instead of lumping the 14 per cent into a “foreign” category why shouldn’t it be divided, let us say, into three per cent foreign other than American, two per cent nonfiction American and nine per cent fiction American?
Some such device would guarantee that we saw something from America other than its muck would limit the American series shown here to only the best available (and a nine per cent would amply assure that) and would encourage an interchange of programmes to the Continent.
Alternatively, we could say to the Americans that we would show on British TV exactly the same percentage of American programmes as they show British programmes on American TV. And they would hardly like that.