Selling Television. British Television in the Global Marketplace

Jeanette Steemers,
Selling Television. British Television in the Global Marketplace.
London: BFI Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 1 84457-055-x (pb)
ISBN 1-84457-022-3 (hb)
U.K £15.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

British tourists are apt to make two observations upon their return from their travels abroad. First, that foreign food is cheap and abundant; second, that British TV is the best in the world. As with most areas of commonsense, these things turn out to be difficult to either prove or refute. However, a British academic has now attempted to put some flesh on the bones of the international T.V debate. Jeanette Steemers’ Selling Television is a very well-researched book which benefits from an interesting and important premise: how can British TV flourish and/or protect itself within the context of the modern global media marketplace?

As Steemers’ text makes clear, British broadcasting has gradually come to share some of the difficulties which have long attended the national film industry. On the one hand, issues of under-capitalisation and straight-ahead ambition have led some British broadcasters to seek international sales. At the same time, the liberal market philosophy that this implies (you sell in our market, we sell in yours) has proven to be at odds with the perceived need to protect traditions of British broadcasting. To some degree, successive British governments have been given to the idea of domestic television as a counter-hegemonic force via-a-vis, in particular, supposedly godless American fare. But this brand of cultural protectionism has proven to be difficult to maintain in a global television world characterised by universal formats, boundary-erasing technologies and ever-increasing demand for product.

Evidently, Selling Television is a book which has to operate on a number of levels. Somehow, Steemers has to make simultaneous account of the demands of the producers and distributors (in all their variety) and the layers of policy which help to define their efforts. She also attempts to consider particular programmes and formats (such as HIT Entertainment’s Bob the Builder and Celador’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) which appear to exemplify modern British television, with all of its inherent tensions. Steemers broadly succeeds in her aims. The structure is impeccable, built on discreet themes – American markets, government policy interventions, Australasian sales strategies – which ultimately coalesce to form a coherent picture of the global positioning of British television. Moreover, Steemers allows herself to be led mainly by the people who are really in the know about all of this – the programme-makers and company chiefs themselves. Selling Television is informed by interviews with over 81 British and international broadcasters.

All of the above testifies to the rigour of Selling Television. This allows for some very strong moments. In Chapter Three, Steemers is able to make good sense of the mesh of policy documents that have engulfed British television culture over the last twenty years. Somewhere between the activities of the Creative Industries Task Force, the British Television Distributors’ Association and The Right Product Group, Steemers demonstrates the push-and-pull atmosphere of British broadcasting legislation. Implicitly, she also reveals something of New Labour cultural policy. The Blair government’s act in 1997 of creating a new Department for Culture, Media and Sport indicated its enthusiasm for the Creative Industries and its (highly Media Studies, actually) awareness of the links between media and cultural regeneration.

Quietly, Selling Television provides evidence of the difficulties which have accompanied the drive to take New Labour cultural/economic policy into the area of television. Steemers also draws some interesting conclusions about the dilemmas which currently face British broadcasters. Finally – and sensibly – she adopts a neo-Reithian stance, arguing that “the danger [for British television] lies in a shift towards programming that is more attuned to the international marketplace at the expense of distinctive and diverse [domestic] programming …” (209).

Undoubtedly, Selling Television will find wide readership within British universities. It certainly deserves to. But this isn’t to suggest that Steemers’ work is without its faults. Attractive cover-design aside (winsome images of children’s favourite Bob the Builder) this is not an easy read. Of course, policy works often come across as the academic equivalent of broccoli; nutritious and necessary, but intrinsically joyless. Even on these terms, Selling Television is remarkably impenetrable. The opening chapter, on general theories of Globalisation, is arid and unnecessary, betraying – as one supposes – the work’s origins as a PhD thesis. The chapters are also structured in pedantic fashion, each bearing a formal introduction and conclusion. More than anything, Selling Television cries out for a stronger sense of the programmes and programme-makers themselves. Strikingly, none of the interviewees is quoted directly. Moreover, we gain little sense of the content of the shows in question. This is a shame, since it creates the impression – regrettable, I think – that television programmes are commodities like any other.

Such qualms aside, Selling Television is a helpful and appropriate addition to the BFI’s collection of works on British and Irish television. Jeanette Steemers truly understands the intricacies of the television export trade and she is thus well-placed to argue persuasively for the protection of British television’s precarious “ecology”.

Laurie N Ede,
University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom.

Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

Laurie N. Ede is a Principal Lecturer in Film, Media and Applied Writing at the University of Portsmouth.View all posts by Laurie N. Ede →