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The U.S. Loves British TV. They’ll Do Whatever It Takes to Watch It.

British and American cultures have intertwined and overlapped for generations. The rise of easily accessible piracy in the early 2000s only accelerated that.

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One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.

From the mid-1990s through 2009, Kim’s Video and Music was holy ground for TV and film nerds. The former East Village laundromat turned New York video rental empire boasted five locations, including the iconic St. Mark’s location, Mondo Kim’s, which housed a library of 55,000 DVDs and VHS tapes, many of them all but impossible to get anywhere else. It is said that Quentin Tarantino was so enamored of the rare finds the store held that he all but lived at Kim’s.

The staff were a highly knowledgeable crowd. (Customers who sometimes found the clerks a bit haughty might use a different term.) These were people, among them future indie darlings such as the director Alex Ross Perry and actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who prided themselves on knowing everything. They could notice a cultural sea change in its nascent stages, long before everyone else began to catch on. “It was simply the best job I ever had. Every day was film and music school featuring your coworkers as guest lecturers, each with their own particular tastes and encyclopedic knowledge,” remembers novelist Chris Maltby, who worked at multiple Kim’s locations from 1999 to 2005. “We all dug coal together.”

At some point, Maltby began to notice there was an appetite, both among his fellow employees and Kim’s customer base, for a certain kind of British show. Things like the scratching satires Nathan Barley and The Thick of It, the horror-comedy genre spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and the surreal slice-of-life comedy The League of Gentlemen, which were far more acidic or weird than anything you could find on American TV at the time. It was catnip for people who discovered the original, U.K. version of The Office and wanted to know what else (not so) Jolly Ol’ England had to offer. And though there were many directions a customer could go in that pursuit, the options all had one thing in common: They weren’t legally available in the United States.

“We did a really good job of keeping ourselves aware of what was popping up across the pond, but I believe it was around the time BBC America first started airing The Office that the base of customers familiar with, say, The Young Ones and Father Ted suddenly started seeking out other shows,” says Maltby. “And the more you get to peel back the weird, more culty layers, and the deeper you get into things like League of Gentlemen, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.”

Americans have been looking to England for the next cool thing since at least the Beatles, and entire lifestyles have been shaped by music fans devouring import issues of NME and discovering Joy Division or the Smiths. (It works both ways, of course, as the British press has a long history, from Jimi Hendrix to the Strokes, of embracing and popularizing American cultural figures early and then selling them back to the colonies.) Similarly, it wasn’t strictly a new thing for highly singular British shows to find an American audience. The groundbreaking sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the booze-addled adventures of Absolutely Fabulous, among others, would air either on BBC America, syndicated on the networks, or early cable channels like Comedy Central, all of which needed low-cost programming.

But the 2000s appreciation for British television, cultish and intense if not quite mainstream, was spurred by two events, both of which can be pegged to 2003. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cringe comedy The Office, about the adventures of the world’s most incompetent boss, was an immediate hit with American comedy aficionadoes who managed to snag a copy. But aside from some airings on BBC America, The Office wasn’t widely available until it was released on DVD for Region 1 (i.e., the United States) in 2003, after which it immediately became a word-of-mouth hit during the heady days of the DVD boom. But that boom would eventually bust, partly due to another momentous 2003 development: the launch of the Pirate Bay, which would make illegally downloading television easier than ever, and which arguably helped put Kim’s out of business in 2014—though the recession, rising rent prices, and the advent of streaming didn’t help either. (Kim’s recently reopened as Kim’s Video Underground, in conjunction with the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain.)

Napster creator Shawn Fanning didn’t invent the concept of downloading music. Once an early version of the MP3 file was introduced in 1992 by German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, fans of classic rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan began trading concert bootlegs on private bulletin boards, and in February 1999, hip-hop icon Nas’s album I Am… leaked onto forums such as Cipher Divine, one of the earliest instances of a high-profile breach. But Napster did make downloading music much easier, and all but irresistible to college kids with the internet. Similarly, it was also possible to download movies and TV shows from shady, hard-to-find forums, or possibly from post-Napster services like LimeWire, so long as you were patient enough to wait out the long download times. But the Pirate Bay, which was launched in Sweden (a country known for lax piracy laws) by the trio of Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij, and Peter Sunde, helped popularize torrents, which break down large files into data that can quickly be shared among a decentralized peer-to-peer network. Suddenly, it was possible to download an entire season of television, or a musician’s entire discography, in just a few hours. The Pirate Bay’s catalog of downloadable material resembled “a menu of movies that would make Blockbuster jealous,” Wired’s Quinn Norton wrote in 2006.

Even for the tech illiterate, it wasn’t that hard to figure out how to make the Pirate Bay work (or to get a friend to show them how). And by 2004, there was an audience that wanted to know whether there was anything else like The Office in England, a hunger that only intensified when the updated version of the long-running British sci-fi hit Doctor Who launched in 2005. Spurred on by message boards, MySpace-facilitated conversations and the bustling comment sections of early recap sites like The A.V. Club and Television Without Pity, plugged-in pop culture vultures were on the hunt. “AbFab and the comedic revelation that The Office was filled a niche that had run fallow in American TV for a while,” says Maltby. “Malcolm in the Middle, Friends, and Seinfeld had all broken certain models of the American sitcom and created an impact, but at the time were either running on steam or leaving the air, and what was on national television were both pale imitators of those shows and painfully unfunny.” Maltby says that some of the Kim’s staff’s Brit favorites included The League of Gentlemen, No Heroics, Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, and The Mighty Boosh.

Kim’s did its part to facilitate this boom, selling import copies of DVD sets of The League of Gentlemen, No Heroics, and whatever else they could find, as well as region-free DVD players that could play anything, while the Brooklyn computer store Mikey’s Hook-Up became known as the place to buy the cables necessary to connect your laptop to the your DVD player. “Britcoms were a doorway into a wider, weirder, profoundly more bitter, tad meaner world of comedy,” says Maltby. “As curators, children, and deep, deep nerds, we weren’t above simply ripping copies of foreign DVDs or purchasing less-than-legal copies of unattainable titles in order to round out a collection.”

The United States and the United Kingdom have long had a complicated, interdependent relationship. Hollywood and the U.S. entertainment industry far dwarfs the size and scale of what the U.K. can produce. But this also offers opportunities, observes Nick Cull, a British-born historian of communication based at USC who specializes in research about the role of communication and culture in foreign policy. “I think that the barriers to entry have been lower in the U.K. and there is an openness for experimentation that isn’t possible here.” That greater willingness to take a flier on an out-of-the-box idea, coupled with a number of cultural factors, explains why the U.K. has long been a breeding ground for cult gems.

“I have a longstanding fascination with the relationship between British and U.S. TV and the way in which the U.K. exists as a kind of parallel entertainment realm which periodically infuses the U.S. market with something fresh and quirky which couldn’t be imagined within the strictures of U.S. corporate program-making,” Cull says. “There is a long tradition of entertainers perfecting their game in the U.K. and then hitting the U.S. market fully formed as innovative contributors. The silent movies had Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel; the talkies drew on British stage performers because of their voice skills, and a generation of writers and directors of whom [Alfred] Hitchcock is today the best known. Flashing forward to the 1970s, think of the impact of Monty Python on the U.S. market.”

Cull moved to the United States in 2005, right as the idea of whispered-about, heavily pirated Britcoms was starting to take hold in corners of the internet. “I made sure we had a region-free DVD, and my main way of keeping up with U.K. content was to buy DVDs on my return trips. I avoided BitTorrent as I don’t like piracy,” he says.

Off-beat shows such as No Heroics, which concerns a world where superheroes were real and spent a lot of time at the pub; Toast of London, which along with Darkplace was an early showcase for the rapier wit of What We Do in the Shadows star Matthew Berry; and the surreal comedy The Mighty Boosh were produced by the BBC’s younger-skewing sister channels BBC Two and Three, as well as by Channel 4 and ITV2. These stations “saw reaching younger adults with cutting-edge humor as part of their mandate. The programs were often made for a late evening slot so the 18-to-35-year-olds had something to watch when they came home from the pub on a Friday evening,” says Cull, who adds that many performers had roots in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or radio comedy. While the shows could vary wildly in approach, a common undercurrent, Cull says, is the feeling that British shows are scrappy underdogs compared to Hollywood fare. “We have so many U.S. shows in the U.K. that sometimes we feel at the edge of our own world.”

Cull says the U.S. version of The Office was a tipping point, which was reinforced by the success of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead and its action-movie spoof follow-up Hot Fuzz. Eventually, the pair’s popularity inspired enough interest to precipitate an American box set release of their late-’90s Britcom Spaced, a sort of proto-version of Community in which a bunch of sci-fi-loving slackers hang out and get into mischief. “Simon Pegg is an interesting case in point,” Cull says. “Amazing how he has morphed from joking about fan favorites in Spaced to appearing in them with his roles in reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars.”

Some Britcoms were full-on genre affairs; some, like Spaced, merely reflected a love of sci-fi and comic books. “It’s interesting that the U.S. audiences liked the shows that were implicitly about the experience of living in the presence of U.S. culture through the sci-fi or horror genre.” Cull theorizes that, like himself, many creators grew up loving classic British sci-fi shows like Thunderbirds and Doctor Who, and because they didn’t have the resources to compete on a large scale, they got weirder instead. “The bottom line was that British TV couldn’t match the production values of U.S. network TV’s output, but it could mock it and create an imaginative space for comment in the process.”

But it wasn’t only the genre stuff that caught on with U.S. audiences. Future Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s acid black satire of the British government, The Thick of It, as well as Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and pre–Black Mirror Charlie Brooker’s ruthless skewering of Vice-era hipsters, were far more caustic than anything even HBO would produce at the time. This of course made them irresistible to viewers who felt that, give or take Arrested Development or The Sopranos, most TV was just too safe, and Bush-era American culture was just too stupid. “I think that audiences crave novelty and authenticity, and that comes from the edge,” says Cull. “The U.K. loves material from Ireland and Australia; the U.S. looks to the U.K.”

In 2006, the Pirate Bay was raided by the Swedish police, who seized 50 servers, much to Hollywood’s relief. “Pirate Bay was a huge source of pirated films for people around the world, and today they are no longer,” a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America told reporters at the time. The three founders, along with business associate Carl Lundstrom, were convicted in Stockholm District Court for promoting other people’s infringements of copyright laws. The Pirate Bay’s defense had been that because they merely allowed people to trade files but didn’t host the files themselves, they hadn’t violated any laws, and thus were not responsible for what was being transferred. The court didn’t buy this argument, and the defendants were sentenced one year imprisonment each and a total of $3.6 million in fines.

A day after the Pirate Bay was taken down, it was back online, thanks to a decentralized backup database one of the founders had put in place, along with enough decoys to fool the authorities, illuminating just how impossible it was getting to put the copyright toothpaste back in the tube. At the time of the raid, Wired noted the idea was “the corporate lawyers will eventually tire of this game of international copyright Whack-A-Mole,” with Pirate Bay cofounder Fredrik Neij saying he welcomes another raid. “I really want the pleasure of it being down three minutes, then up again.”

The Pirate Bay’s founders were sentenced in 2009, two years after Netflix introduced the streaming component that came to define the erstwhile mail-order rental company, as well as two years after Hulu formed. Spotify (which now owns The Ringer) had launched in Sweden a year earlier, and became available in America in 2011. In 2012, New Zealand authorities, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice, raided the mansion of Kim Schmitz, a.k.a. Kim Dotcom, dealing a serious blow to the MP3-soaked blogosphere.

There’s a widespread idea that once streaming became available, piracy would go away. And it certainly abated from its high points in the 2000s, with Variety noting that in 2016, “BitTorrent traffic has fallen to a new low, and now only accounts for 2.76 percent of all internet traffic coming into people’s homes in North America during peak times. Netflix, on the other hand, is responsible for 36.48 percent of peak downstream traffic.” But just as Nirvana didn’t actually kill hair metal, streaming didn’t actually kill piracy.

Far from it, insists Andy Chatterley, CEO and cofounder of MUSO, a data-tracking company that provides information on the global demand for pirated digital content to the world’s top entertainment companies. The U.K.-based Chatterley was a longtime producer and songwriter; he cowrote and coproduced Kylie Minogue’s hit “Aphrodite” and played keyboards on Kanye West’s Graduation before forming MUSO. “I experienced the problem of piracy from the firsthand perspective and also the lack of help, actually, for rights holders at the time when we set the company up,” he says. “We realized, probably after about six years, that we’re sitting on a mountain of data … [that] allows us to understand piracy in a way that we probably didn’t quite understand it back in 2010.” MUSO tracks illegal downloads of music and around 390,000 film and TV shows from all over the world, and in 2017 developed the ability to track what files were being pirated from which locations. MUSO not only tracks torrents, but also illegal streaming platforms, such as Vumoo, which are now more popular than download sites and which closely mirror platforms like Netflix, sans any content restriction.

While piracy has gone down from the ’00s-era peak, volume is still high. If anything, it’s gotten even higher in recent years. Streaming should have solved the scarcity problem suggested by the Britcom boom—popular British shows such as Luther, Sherlock, and Doctor Who all reached American audiences on either Netflix, Amazon Prime, or the BBC app. But MUSO’s data shows that television piracy has started to rise again in the past five years, and especially boomed during the pandemic-induced lull when not much new content was available, a move that had been predicted as the Streaming Wars heated up and seemingly every media company, from NBCUniversal to Disney, launched their own pay streaming service.

The issue, in Chatterley’s view, isn’t that people want all TV shows for free. Many, if not most, are willing to pay for a reasonable amount of streaming services. But an ecosystem where TV fans have to subscribe to HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, Peacock, and even Paramount+ to feel in the loop can naturally produce a spike in piracy from people who resent the fact that we’re ostensibly returning to the hefty cable packages that the cord-cutting revolution was supposed to free us from. “Often, it’s economical. … It’s counterculture in the streaming age,” he says. “It’s the proliferation of streaming platforms, and the increasing monthly cost of those things can go up. And I think now, heading into inflation … these are the things that are going to get ripped off.” (Also, just as Spotify doesn’t have everything, most of the shows that defined the Britcom boom are still unavailable on American streaming platforms.)

MUSO’s data shows that the series most pirated, overall, are exactly what you would think: anything related to Marvel, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones. Downloads of U.S. shows far dwarf any pirating of British shows, though Chatterley says that’s an unfair comparison because of “the amount of shows that the American production companies make and also the marketing behind it. Without question, it would be the British people downloading American shows because of the success of the American production industry.”

The strong appetite for British shows comes from fans of the crime drama Peaky Blinders as well as Derry Girls, a dark sitcom about Northern Irish teenage girls set in the time of the Troubles—the latter is downloaded four times more in the U.S. than anywhere else, and is also watched by people on VPNs. Both shows eventually land on Netflix after their most recent seasons conclude, but many impatient fans don’t want to wait. “The idea in an instant society, in an instant culture, that you have to wait six weeks for something is almost alien,” says Chatterley.

Empirically, it’s hard to argue with Chatterley’s assertion that piracy has been devastating for the entertainment industry. Yet it’s also hard to deny that Napster and the Pirate Bay exposed a generation to untold amounts of music, films, and television, be it from the past, overseas, or just from a previously unheralded genre. The Britcom piracy boom broke a lot of laws, but its influence helped push comedy forward.

But just as streaming and social media have led to (arguably incorrect) lamentations from hipsters that there are no more underground music scenes, people who spent time in the BitTorrent trenches might be inclined to grumble that there are no more Britcoms that they get to pass around like a secret now that everything is available all the time and most piracy is focused on that which is already monolithically popular. “If you knew about Nathan Barley in America in ’05, you were pretty cutting-edge,” Chatterley says, nodding to an era gone by. “But now, consumption is instantaneous.“

Maybe the internet was better when it was run by hipsters, punks, nerds, and weird teenagers and perverts—before Facebook ruined everything by bringing the normies and boomers to the party. But even in a time of increased media consolidation that seems to bring us fewer choices, it’s always possible to find hidden gems in any medium, and Britain hasn’t lost its knack for making shows that may not be for everyone, but are everything to the right few. You might just have to look a bit harder. “My current U.K. favorite is Ghosts, which is just beginning its fourth season,” says Cull, talking about a dark comedy that’s become such an internet word-of-mouth hit that HBO Max snapped up the rights to air it, while CBS quickly adapted it for American audiences.

“It has its U.S. version,” he continues, “and while I enjoy that, the U.K. version has a special charm.”

Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, MEL, Variety, Stereogum, and Playboy. His book Top Eight: How The MySpace Era Changed Music Forever will be published by Chicago Review Press in August 2023.

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