Late in 2013, a Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, ran an editorial saying that Britain was “no longer any kind of ‘big country’, but merely a country of old Europe suitable for tourism and overseas study, with a few decent football teams.”
The newspaper forgot to mention the contribution that British television makes. In 2012, sales of British television programmes to international markets grew to £1.22bn. Yes, the world is hooked on British television.
It feels odd that ITV and BBC, two relatively small television networks, have a major cultural impact across the globe. Their balance sheets prove how strong British television is right now. ITV have done well with shows like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Midsomer Murders being some of Britain’s most well-known exports besides financial services and expensive cars. Even Heartbeat is big, apparently the Finnish can’t get enough of it.
BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, doubled its headline sales from 1995-2012 to over £1 billion. BBC shows are renowned for being of great quality, just to prove it, Top Gear is watched by over 300 million people worldwide. Life on Mars has been remade in America, Spain and Russia. Doctor Who is booming in popularity, while get this, Sherlock is so popular in China, that Chinese viewers not only give the two leads cool nicknames, “Curly Fu” and “Peanut,” but they are also renowned for their determination to find a homosexual subtext to the show.
Despite this commercial and cultural success, ITV and BBC still have rivalry here in our little nation. Strictly Come Dancing competes against The X Factor, Coronation Street competes against EastEnders and The Voice goes toe-to-toe with Britain’s Got Talent. There is no war between the networks, but in the fight for ratings, there can be ruthless battles. The very nature of the networks creates division of sorts.
The BBC is a public broadcaster reliant on licence fees, while ITV is a privately-owned broadcaster. The BBC was set up to “inform, educate and entertain.” ITV has no such mantra. Remember that ITV was set up to break the monopoly on broadcast television held by the BBC and it was set up to be rival. Its rivalry is not just found in the ratings though. It’s found in the pay packets. ITV is trying to poach BBC Breakfast presenter Susanna Reid for a £750,000 pay rise. Simon Cowell is being paid £25m for three seasons of The X Factor, while BBC’s best-paid star Graham Norton gets just over £2.6m per annum.
Yet despite their minor conflicts, both ITV and BBC are really quite similar. They produce quality television and trashy television. ITV has Jeremy Kyle, the BBC has BBC3 (at least for now). ITV has Downton Abbey, the BBC has Call the Midwife and Blandings. Whatever the conflicts though, both networks are cultural powerhouses and we may not be a big country, but thanks to ITV and the BBC, our British cultural influence is stronger than ever.