LONDON — When the British insist that, despite our shared language, they are different from Americans, I believe them. It is not, however, due to their superior birthright, their love of manners or their unique ability to tolerate cricket for more than 30 seconds.
It’s the TV they watch.
In today’s video-saturated world, you are what you see. And while we Yanks spend an average of seven hours a day with our tube — swallowing such pabulum as “Melrose Place,” “Spin City,” “Dawson’s Creek” and professional wrestling
— the Brits are being spoon-fed “Ground Force.”
Ah, you say. “Ground Force.” Sounds like a wild, violent drama about a SWAT team — in other words, a show Americans would watch.
Wrong. “Ground Force” is about — and you couldn’t make this up — “repeated garden makeovers.” That’s right. A gardening show. And you know when it airs? Sunday night at 8:30.
Prime time. On BBC1, which either stands for British Broadcasting Corp. or Boldly Boring Creations. I’m not sure.
The thing is, while cable and satellite TV have made big inroads here in England, there are still many homes where the only TV is network TV, which means, primarily BBC1 and BBC2.
Which means “Barking Mad,” a show about problem pets. Yes. Problem pets. Your ailing dog, and what to do with him. Your lethargic cat and how to help her. Your vomiting hamster, how to clean up. This show airs at 8 Tuesday nights.
By comparison, at the same time in America, we’re watching “3rd Rock from the Sun.”
You see the problem.
What’s with Auntie’s bloomers?
No wonder the Brits aren’t as messed up as we are. Let me give you a sampling of the prime-time shows that air on BBC1 and BBC2, and imagine if you lived in a place where this was your only TV reception. Remember, these are all shows between 7 and 11 at night.
“The Travel Show” — This week: the quieter side of Mallorca.
“St. Paul’s” — First in a three-part series inside London’s top-notch cathedral.
“Wogan’s Guide to Being an Old Geezer.”
“So You Think You’re a Good Driver” — With Nick Ross.
“Tomorrow’s World” — Scientific Innovations.
“The National Lottery” — Local heroes.
“Gardeners World” — With Alan Titschmarsh.
“Parkinson” — Interview with Sir David Attenborough.
“Auntie’s Sporting Bloomers.”
I’m not sure what that last one is. It could be a family show (Auntie), an athletic competition (Sporting) or another show about gardening (Bloomers).
But here’s my point. If this is what you’re being fed, night in, night out, how messed up can you be?
Now, it is true, even on BBC1 and BBC2, there are the occasional “American” type programs, such as a sitcom, a show about murder or, in some cases, an actual American movie. But last week, the governors who run the BCC that’s what they’re called, governors — expressed alarm that their programming was becoming “too populist.”
That’s right. They said the BBC needed to “hold its nerve” and get rid of soft shows that were designed to get ratings — including some daytime talk shows. Instead, they said, they should concentrate more on current affairs and arts programming.
One official called it “braining up.”
Now, I’ve done a good deal of TV work. I know a lot of TV executives. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “braining up” used in American programming.
“Dumbing down,” yes, but never “braining up.”
Nor have I ever heard a TV executive demand a “reappraisal” of programs that are doing well. In the States, if the show is about naked aliens who dance and it’s getting good ratings, it stays.
“Ratings are not the be-all and end-all for the BBC,” the governors said.
Wow. I guess that’s what happens when the government is involved in your TV schedule. Then again, we are talking about a network that currently is lamenting the loss of the right to broadcast cricket. In America, losing cricket would be cause for celebration.
Anyhow, I salute the BBC, although I do wonder how many more shows about plants one can watch. Still, the notion of someone saying “our TV programming is getting too lowbrow” and actually doing something about it is remarkable. And it is one thing, I have to admit, that separates the Brits from the Americans.
That, and Auntie’s bloomers.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM