Why are American soaps so different from UK soaps?

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7 February
16:26
8 February
15:32

The US TV industry is based on the movie business – stars, brands, concepts, the logline, the poster. UK TV is based on the theatre and literature – the author’s voice, Dickens and Shakespeare.

America is aspirational, UK is still class-conscious. They look up to and celebrate fame, success and wealth. We are suspicious of those things. I’m running a soap in the US now, The Young And The Restless (below). It’s been on air for 43 years, and four of the characters are multi-millionaires. One of them’s a billionaire. It’s hard coming up with stories for people who’ve got everything, so you have to really screw them around emotionally. But Americans believe that everyone can become the President. Whereas in Britain, no-one wants to be the Prime Minister. We hate authority. We hate anyone who does quite well. We’re suspicious of that. We are still a very parochial country. We’re very class-conscious and we want to see the underdog.

  • The glitz, the glamour, the impossible luxury… and of course America has some fancy shows too. EastEnders (©BBC) and The Young And The Restless (© CBS).

Our soaps are very much rooted in reflecting our own lives. America doesn't want that. They want possible lives, aspirational lives. They’re a little bit ashamed about people who haven’t done very well. Everyone there is an entrepreneur. Everyone thinks they can open up their own business, or get a franchise. That’s what McDonald’s is built on.

“Americans believe that everyone can become the President. In Britain, no-one wants to be the Prime Minister. We hate authority.”

Also, they didn't go through two wars in the same way. While we were struggling to pull ourselves together in the 50s they were thinking how they could have bigger cars, wider roads and better houses. They just grew up in a different atmosphere. They have a confidence we lack.

But regardless of class, there is actually a great commonality between US and British soaps. No-one really cares how a millionaire spends his money. Business stories are actually quite boring. But we all identify with births, marriages, deaths; the stuff of Dickens. Someone has something, then they lose it. It’s drama regardless of where it’s set or how much money the characters have. The drama is still rooted in emotion; deep characters with challenges that the audience can still relate to, no matter who they are.

We have a wide demographic on The Young And The Restless. It’s a very diverse audience. A lot of working class. They will look at it and say “I wish I was living this life”. But actually the thing they’re connecting to is the emotional stuff, about someone having their heart broken or being lied to, cheated on. Also, we all love to see someone getting the rug pulled from underneath them if they’re doing too well. It makes us all feel a bit better about ourselves.

“I’ve pitched American versions of EastEnders and every time, at the last minute, they pull out. They say ‘Why do we want to see misery?’”

Most of the really successful American sitcoms have been about the working classes – Cheers, Roseanne – so they don't mind laughing at the working classes. But the only other working class people you really see in American dramas are cops or nurses.

When I first went to the States about twelve years ago, one of the first shows I pitched was an American version of EastEnders. They loved it. They loved that it was so successful. I showed them the ratings. Of course they’d love something like this, and, in the room, they loved the idea. They thought that it was so low in concept that it was high concept, that it was just about people, living their lives. Over the last ten years I’ve created and written about four different versions. One was called This Land. Another was Born In The USA, another was called Blocked, which was a comedy soap about a New York block. But every time, at the last minute, they pulled out, and said “What’s on the poster? It’s not a big enough concept.” They say “Why do we want to see misery? We want to be aspirational.” We’d insist that there’s still aspiration there, but it’s an aspiration about paying your mortgage and keeping your job. Bringing up your kids.

I still think one day America will have a working-class soap but it’s more likely to happen because of cable, Amazon and Netflix. The US version of Shameless does it, and America is changing so the tastes of both countries seems to be merging now – probably because of digital platforms and the global availability of scripted TV. We’re sharing so much more now.

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