The Contrast Between American and British Television


“…Americans say, “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Brits are terrified to say this. We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason… Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, “It won’t happen for you.” (Ricky Gervais, 2013)

Many successful television shows, particularly in the 21st century, televise both American and British versions. From cookery shows starring Gordon Ramsey such as Hell’s Kitchen, to reality television like Wife Swap and globally recognized improvised comedy like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, there’s a myriad of television shows that cater for varying audiences.

However, what is commonly present within these adaptions is the difference in conception. In each version of the show you’ve got differing aspects, from target audience to setting and how characters are portrayed.

The above quotation from comedian Ricky Gervais encapsulates this bridging difference between two vastly different English-speaking audiences.
When discussing how to translate the British version of The Office, which aired from 2001-2003, towards American audiences he remarked that a lead character of the show, Michael Scott, needed to be adjusted to appeal towards the typical American consumer.
While typical British audience members could allow for more pragmatic and darker characters throughout a television series, American audiences appealed to likable characters in television instead of mere protagonists.

The need to adapt characters and plotlines within varying mediums, from a television series such as The Office to Sherlock Holmes and his portrayal in both film and television further reinforce how important it is that all these different filmmakers and content producers are driven to create viable content to today’s audiences.

A more contrasting example of these differences can be seen in the three different appropriations of Sherlock Holmes towards modern audiences, shown in Warner Brother’s action-adventure movies Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, in BBC’s crime drama orientated mini-series Sherlock and finally in CBS’s television series Elementary.

Both Sherlock and Elementary prime the audience towards a 21st Century reading of Sherlock Holmes, presented through contemporary production. Just as there are vastly different characteristics between Michael Scott and David Brent in The Office there are also differences in how Sherlock Holmes is shown in media. In the Warner Brother movies, the protagonist is shown as childish, with anti-heroic qualities.

These qualities are taken even further in Sherlock, where he is viewed as friendless and almost antagonistic to appeal towards a British audience.
There is a contrast between this sociopathic version of Sherlock Holmes and Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock in Elementary, where he is portrayed as a more emotional being.

We can see that the difference in portrayal of this venerated and historic character is catered differently to the American and British audiences, however between all these appropriations of the character, we can see that the blurring of heroic and anti-heroic aspects is needed to grab the influence of modern audiences.

Polasek, A. D. (2013). ‘Surveying the post-millennial Sherlock Holmes: a case for the great detective as a man of our times’.
GERVAIS, R. The Difference Between American and British Humour. 1, Dec. 16, 2013.


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