WASHINGTON – The British are coming — actually, they’re already here. And they’re running some of America’s top media and entertainment companies and successfully peddling their shows, newspapers and magazines to the former colonies.
There are so many Brits at the highest echelons of the American news and cultural establishment these days that it’s enough to make a bloke wonder: What’s all this about then?
Honing your talent in the hyper-competitive British home market is one factor: A nation with one-fifth the population of the United States supports three independent national TV networks and more than a dozen national newspapers — broadsheets, “middle-market” tabloids and scandal-mongering “red tops.”
“To compete (in Great Britain), you have to be really sharp,” says Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia’s journalism school. Bell, a British native and former Guardian editor, observes, “There is a more acute tabloid or populist sensibility in much U.K. media, which makes the U.S. offering seem stodgy by comparison. And although the (American) media market is huge, the actual pool of talent at senior levels, crammed into New York City, can feel very small indeed.”
The latest member of the British invasion: Deborah Turness, who was named president of NBC News last week. Turness, the head of Britain’s ITV News, will be the first woman and the second Brit (after CBS’ Howard Stringer in the late 1980s) to oversee the news division of a major American network.
Well, join the club.
Last year, The New York Times named Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, Britain’s media crown jewel, as its chief executive. His countryman, Gerard Baker — ex-BBC, ex-Financial Times, ex-Times of London — became the top editor at the Wall Street Journal in December.
The equally British Joanna Coles last year became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, the preeminent guide to all the Things That Will Drive Him Wild in Bed. Then there’s Piers Morgan, the former British tabloid journalist who anchors CNN’s signature interview program. And ex-BBC-er Martin Bashir, who hosts an interview show on MSNBC. And Colin Myler, another former British tabloid journalist who is the editor of the New York Daily News.
Shall we prattle on? Oh, yes, let’s.
ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee, also formerly with the BBC, has been responsible for selecting the prime-time programming at his network (that would be the American Broadcasting Co.) for the past three years. Yet another Beeb vet, Jon Williams, was hired by ABC News in March to run its international news operations.
Meanwhile, much of America’s reality TV comes from British producers: Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice”); Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller (“American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance”); and Simon Cowell (“American Idol,” “The X Factor”).
Of course, the very British Anna Wintour has long edited Vogue magazine and expat Tina Brown edits the Daily Beast and Newsweek (and before that Talk, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair). Brown’s British husband, Harold Evans, once edited Esquire. Another Brit, the Internet entrepreneur Nick Denton, is the force behind such popular websites as Gawker and Gizmodo.
At the same time, British-based media outlets such as the BBC, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and the Economist have slowly expanded in the American market.
Britain and America, of course, have long had close cultural, economic and linguistic ties. Americans have eagerly consumed British writers from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, and have embraced Britain’s film, TV and pop stars.
But increasingly, some of the Queen’s subjects have been making decisions about what Americans read, see and hear.
American media companies have turned to British talent out of distress, says Dick Meyer, a former CBS and NPR news executive who is the executive producer of the BBC’s American news operations.
“The news business has been so hard-pressed in this country for the past few years that it’s no surprise that you’re seeing some unconventional choices,” Meyer says. “The business is changing so fast. Who knows if the unconventional choices are better than the conventional ones. But it’s an understandable choice.”
The bottom line also comes into play, Bell notes. “If you accept the general premise that the product in TV news is better or as good (in Britain) and the salaries are lower, why wouldn’t you look in the (British) market?”
Bell compares the current British wave to the Australian media incursion into Great Britain in the 1980s. Led by Rupert Murdoch, the Aussie media baron who eventually became an American citizen, Australians took a number of top jobs on Fleet Street and in British television.
The “British-ization” of the American media may be most pronounced at Myler’s New York Daily News. The website Capital New York noted that Myler had “put some punch back” in the paper since his arrival but also asked, “On the other hand, how many pictures of half-naked women or Midwest weird-crime stories … can a working-class New York tabloid stomach before it starts to feel more like The Daily Mail than, well, a working-class New York tabloid?”
British media executives may be particularly attractive in an era when the Internet is leveling national boundaries, says Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC’s Global News Service in London. In this, the Brits had a head start, he points out: As the progenitors of a globe-spanning colonial empire, the British were global players long before there was such a thing as “globalization.”
“We’ve had to be an outward-looking nation for many years,” Horrocks says. “We can no longer impose ourselves on others with military power. We have to earn our way on our wits. U.K. news brands think globally.” The government-supported BBC is the world’s largest broadcaster, with more than 23,000 employees.
So what can Brits teach Americans? Horrocks has a ready answer: “A world view. Competitiveness. Hunger. Irony.”
But the question might be reversed as well. There are few Americans of any prominence in Britain’s media and entertainment establishment. Why hasn’t the tide flowed in the opposite direction?
Andrew Sullivan, the pioneering blogger (and a former editor of the New Republic magazine), thinks some of it may be “a tribute to American openness and a generous attitude toward ability. I don’t think you’re going to see the British asking an American to edit” one of its leading newspapers or magazines.
The British-born Sullivan believes that “nationalism and class” — essentially British snobbery — play some part in this. But it’s also because the British know far more about American history, popular culture and politics than Americans know about Great Britain’s, both because American politics is important to Britons and because of the ubiquity of American-made movies, music and TV programs.
“The truth is, the British have a very small culture,” Sullivan says. “Its politics and culture require a level of immersion that no American is really exposed to in detail, as opposed to Britons, who know quite a bit about America.”
Of course, Sullivan acknowledges another, simpler explanation for British successes in America:
“The horrible fact is that Americans hear a British accent and think the British are more intelligent,” he says. “This still endures even though we’ve proven we’re crap at so many things.”
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