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’s Howard Stringer in the late 1980s) to oversee the news division of a major American network.
Well, join the club, love.
Last year, the New York Times Co. 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,” “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 Web sites 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.