For decades, American fans of British accents had it rough. Beginning in the 1970s, the primary access they had to television created in the United Kingdom was through PBS, which imported classic series like Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who to fill out the hours of programming not devoted to Sesame Street and pledge drives.
Said airings were often months behind the U.K., and even as DVRs and digital streaming came on the scene, U.K. TV still struggled to find its way to America legally. The irony, of course, is that British television has consistently been heralded as some of the best in the world (well, maybe Doctor Who isn’t for everyone, but we can all agree about the original British Office).
Now, however, things have changed. streaming services based in the US have embraced television from across the pond, and as a result, British television has never been bigger in the US.
Charlotte Koh, head of content development for Hulu Originals, acknowledged this in an email interview, pointing out that the service has acquired a wide range of programming from around the world over the past few years (including Korean dramas, Japanese anime and the original foreign versions of American series like Homeland and The Bridge). But, she said, “In particular, British television has become the cornerstone of our international programming.”
These shows range from popular favorites like Who and Sherlock (which are also available on Netflix and Amazon Prime) to exclusive runs on award-winning dramas and comedies like Misfits, Moone Boy and Rev.
“Our audience tends to be a more discerning group of viewers who seek out and appreciate the distinctive and unique qualities of British television,” Koh said.
It helps that Hulu hasn’t been shy about putting some promotional muscle behind its programming: When The Wrong Mans premiered last November, it not only garnered strong reviews but received no shortage of print advertising, including billboards all over Los Angeles.
“By supporting our originals with well-targeted advertising and publicity, we’ve seen a meaningful uptick in awareness not only for The Wrong Mans, but for Hulu Originals overall,” Koh said.
Meanwhile, Amazon Prime Instant Video’s stable of exclusive international content isn’t as large as Hulu’s, but they’ve been at it for a much shorter period of time: While Hulu was making these deals as far back as 2011, Amazon made Downton Abbey its first exclusive streaming acquisition only a year ago.
But according to Amazon’s director of digital video content acquisition, Brad Beale, making that call was a no-brainer for them: “The series was consistently in our top most watched TV shows each week so we already knew customers loved this show,” he said. “It was an easy decision to add it to Prime.”
It’s even popular for those who don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime, but do pay for individual episodes or season passes. “Our customers can’t seem to get enough of the show,” Beale said.
On top of the many American shows Amazon now streams exclusively, Amazon is also host to the first season of Orphan Black (which is shot in Canada, but airs on BBC America in the States and BBC3 in the U.K.) and Mr. Selfridge (starring Jeremy Piven).
Even Netflix is in on the game. It’s picked up series from the U.K. like the Gillian Anderson-starring The Fall to Ricky Gervais’s Derek exclusively for streaming.
Of course, the British TV boom in America might have to do with the fact that it’s not seen as primarily British. “Given the growing popularity of shows such as Moone Boy and The Wrong Mans, viewers are more focused on a show’s originality and adept storytelling and less about its geographical origins,” Koh mentioned.
And thus, British TV’s popularity outside of the U.K. speaks less to the popularity of international television on a domestic level, and more to the drum being beaten louder and louder every day: Consumers, increasingly, just don’t care. They don’t care if the show originated on Netflix or NBC, and they don’t care what country it was made in. The one thing that makes them care is if it’s good.
British television, right now? Happens to be pretty good. “The U.K. has a vibrant creative community that is recombining and redefining genres to deliver some of the best television currently available anywhere,” Koh said. And that is ultimately what’s bringing viewers in.
The question remains: What happens when all the quality British TV has been snapped up? Perhaps there’s Canada…