Thursday, 17 September 2015


Thursday, 17 September 2015

It's fascinating to me when successful British TV formats don't work when translated for our American cousins. The U.S have remade ITV's light entertainment hit Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, which debuted on NBC a few days ago. They're airing Best Time Ever on Tuesdays because weekend TV in America is mostly a wasteland (as advertisers believe the lucrative 18-34 demographic are out getting wasted, not watching TV indoors), with the possible exception of Sunday evenings when lots of popular cable drama's broadcast.

The scheduling is probably the first warning sign, because Saturday Night Takeaway (SNT) is the successor to countless British 'shiny floor' variety shows from decades past. Ant & Dec openly admit their show is a smorgasbord of all the stunts, games, skits, and pranks they grew up watching and their show owes its very existence to. Most notably 1990s mainstay Noel's House Party on BBC1.

American has no such cultural history with "Saturday TV", or deep-rooted nostalgia for such kinds of variety shows. Interestingly, many of the negative reviews for Best Time Ever (BTE) listed some of the alternate places where audiences could watch better versions of what Neil Patrick Harris was delivering on NBC; either on rival shows that specialise in pranks, games, sketches, and celebrity interviews, or modern YouTube channels.

Thing is, Britons have just as much access to those same alternatives in the digital age, but SNT works perfectly fine for us, so maybe that particular argument is nonsense. I still think it's down to the British having a longer viewing history with variety shows, in general, and these particular kinds of light entertainment shows in particular.

That and the fact Ant & Dec are extremely popular presenters and real-life friends, who maintain a common touch despite now being muti-millionaires. And I dare say this particular format works better with a double-act like them as hosts. Some reviews mentioned the awkwardness they felt with NPH trying to single-handedly 'get the party started' to a room of seated onlookers who aren't used to these kind of shows, but having two genuine pals bouncing off each just draws audiences in much better. And, perhaps more crucially, the live studio audiences and home viewers in the UK are already buying into their show's demands and have the right expectations. It's comforting. Brits grew up watching this kind of stuff, and Ant & Dec's iteration is an enjoyable throwback given a modern spin.

It's been funny reading some of the BTE criticism from the American press this week, because at face-value most of the complaints could also be levelled at SNT. I'd love to see what some of the U.S reviewers would make of the British original that's a big hit here, but my guess is they'd dislike it for broadly the same reasons—and obviously it would feel even more alien because of all the limey colloquialisms. Does that mean SNT is a bad show the British public have merely been conditioned to enjoy over generations? No, it just means that certain television formats rely on things that aren't easy to quantify. There's an alchemy to light entertainment shows that's difficult to get right, and certainly doing one in a TV culture that doesn't have much attachment to them is an uphill struggle.

Of course, some very important people at NBC watched SNT and thought it looked like a winner. The choice of Neil Patrick Harris as host isn't bad, although he lacks the down-to-earth touch of Ant & Dec and is 'flying solo' in a format that would definitely work better with two, three or four co-presenters. Interestingly, this isn't the first British hit NPH has been linked to, because he's been associated with a U.S version of ITV's game show The Cube for many years (having even filmed a pilot in the UK's studio).

BTE is actually very faithful to the original, too. It's recognisably the same show in terms of content, right down to the slightly weird decision to have a child play 'Little Neil'. You can hardly claim American suits messed with the format too much. It's largely the same show, but with a different host. Thing is, it's playing to a very different crowd. What NBC didn't count on is the psychology involved with programming like this. It's simply easier to succeed when the audience have fond memories of enjoying similar shows growing up, and are therefore happy to be swept along for the ride and vicariously have the "best time ever" from the comfort of their sofa (when everyone else is out getting smashed, right?)

Although maybe NBC's title also oversells what's supposed to be a light-hearted, family-friendly mix of random silliness. How American.

Best Time Ever • Tuesdays, 10/9c • NBC