convention. This is complex. witty and stylish television with the painstak-


ing touch of film auteur Barry Levinson. In Britain it is shown to relatively small audiences on our most adventurous station Channel 4. In the US. it picks up 33 million viewers at prime-time on the NBC network.

Not that this has always been the

case. A few years back. an idea like Northern Exposure wouldn’t have

made it past the initial PilCh. The fact is though. I"

that faced by increasing competition from cable. and the more sophisticated demographics of their audiences, the networks are prepared to take more risks. ‘Audiences have grown up,’ says a CBS executive. ‘Homicide and NYPI) are part of a darker, more urban trend. The days of the soapy glitzy drama are past - although that’s still an element that is very much alive in factual programming.’

The US commitment to news also puts UK coverage to shame. Supercilious Brits have sneered at the ‘Gee whiz’ attitude of CNN reporters, but American news coverage has a concentration on accurate facts and accessible reporting that seems several degrees preferable to the BBC tradition ofOxbridge graduates attempt- ing to compose sententious prose over the pictures. It’s no accident that it was CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War that remains in the memory.

CNN’s news has raised the worldwide profile of US cable

‘Four or five : years ago, cable 5

critic. ‘Now it’s big-league. , mainstream entertainment. I99] _, will probably go down as the ' "7 golden year of cable. That was when A a lot of the new stuff they were making was innovative and a hit ratings-wise. Now they’re beginning the reverse slope. getting closer to the networks and competing for the same market.’

The influence of video games and interac- tive technology means that audiences are fragmenting in the US, as they are in the UK. .5 The implications are not so serious. simply because US TV started off fragmented anyway. Every town, every city has its own stations. its own network affiliates and its own bunch of eccentrics grabbing the public access air-time.

What is certain is that American TV, to the outsider at least. offers more than a few gems amidst the dross. And it seems that Americans themselves are coming to terms with the power of the medium. There’s an increasing awareness of the cultural significance of their television history. from Ed Sullivan to I Love Lucy. There’s also a growing respect for TV from previously superior movie-makers. Levinson isjust one film director to embrace TV whole-heartedly, with others including Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman. Oliver Stone and David Lynch taking advantage of increased freedoms on the small screen.

Ironically. in the midst of all these exciting developments on their own doorstep. there is still a hard core of Americans who watch only British imports. In Los Angeles there is a

companies. but the proliferation of was for kooks, Coronation Street cadre avidly hip, urbane new comedy and drama wen-dos, following the adventures of Ken. on the hitherto moribund and re'igious {leaks Deirdre et al. In Miami. third- monolithtc US national networks and sex maniacs.j generation Scots pretend to owesalot to the pressure exerted by Nowitss big_ understand Taggart. while Upper the increasing ambitions (and . league West Side New Yorkers have an audience share) of other cable almost comic reverence for any

stations. Large. well-financed cable networks like HBO. MTV and even the nostalgia station Nickelodeon have picked up substantial audiences and critical acclaim with cult comedy shows like Dream On. Beavis And Butt/read and The tarry Sanders Show and punctured the complacency of the networks. ‘Four or five years ago, cable was for kooks. weirdos. religious freaks and sex maniacs.’ says one New York TV

mainstream entertainment.’

British (and particularly BBC) programmes. The underfunded state network PBS regularly runs very

English series like The House 0/

Eliot! under the heading Masterpiece Theater. It seems the days when we could impress the Yanks with a pukka accent are not yet over. Joan Collins can breathe easy for a little longer.

Channel 4's United States Of Television begins on [2 I‘ebruarjv.

Tom Lappin takes a glimpse into the ruthlessly competitive world of American sitcom, where the unlikely hit Home Improvement currently heads the pile.

merica’s latest TV comedy star Tim Allen is getting into his ‘Iron lohn’ stride: ‘We need to get back to something more primitive,’ he intones sensuously caressing the bit of his over-sized power drill. . . . something atavistic.’ The testosterone is almost dripping from the screen.

Yup. broad satire is the stuff of Home Improvement. America’s current number one show. with Robert Bly’s best-seller on ‘inner maleness’ the main target. In the series which Channel 4 has bought for the UK, Allen plays media DIY man Tim Taylor. who uses his cable TV show to equate tool-wielding domestic repairs with new concepts of masculinity - much to the embarrassment of his wife and family.

Taylor is an amiany ridiculous figure, but his creator Matt Williams wants us to take him seriously as a comment in the current debate on gender roles. a comic take on ‘a man who is nurturing the earth as well as nurturing as a father. a man who is trying to set an example. Women want us to be macho.’ he adds. ‘but they also want us to cry and do flower arrangements. I’m confused.’

Not so confused were the American viewers who found Home lmprovement’s blend of the clever and the populist (the writing team include some of the Cos/2y crew) a winning combination. In the viciously competitive world of US sitcoms. for a relatively new show like Home Improvement to soar to the top so soon is unusual to say the least. More often. new comedies need a couple of years of being

US TV from A to Zee

10 The List 28 January-IO February 1994

l the way from


An A to Z of classic American TV that may or may not have impinged on the UK consciousness. Sometimes the Atlantic has never

seemed so wide . . .

is for All In The Family. Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Dr) Part

was translated into American and swiftly became a national institution. Carroll O’Connor played America’s answer to Alf Garnett. Archie Bunker. whose bigoted effectiveness. like that of his British counterpart. outstayed its welcome after six classic years from 1971—77. Also All My Chlldren. ABC's definitive daytime soap (born in I970) that spawned a million and one parodies.

is for Beavls And Butthead. B with The Simpsons and Ren And

Stimpy. the animated symptoms of the dumbing of America. Or alternatively. a post-modern satirical

slack-brained response to fragmented J