‘Amongst Friends Here Tonight’: National Awards for International Television

Curator's Note

By the time Borgen won its BAFTA in 2012 foreign-language drama had become a mainstay of BBC Four’s schedule. The channel now routinely gains its biggest audiences for the Saturday night slot featuring high-brow, socially engaged series with slow-burning narratives and – most notably – subtitles. The Danish version of The Killing had already won in the international category at the previous year’s ceremony, and Borgen, nominated alongside The Killing II, consolidated the success of the acquisitions bought from Danish public service broadcaster Danmarks Radio, noticeably countering the dominant Anglophone trans-Atlantic flow of content (with three more hopefuls for the category in 2013 coming from DR).

On show here is the transformation of the award academy’s role in order to accommodate the internationalisation of the television industry. This is especially complicated in the context of Britain where the value of PSB has long been associated with the ‘gatekeeper’ role of producing and protecting the national culture against what Michael Tracy describes as the ‘smooth[ing] out the political geography of nations’ by the open market. We can view the BAFTA television awards’ International category as instrumental in discursively legitimating (certain kinds of) imports. Indeed, behind Kate Thornton’s slightly over-rehearsed chumminess, the winners’ obligatory self-deprecatory shock at their success and the emphasis on how the award proves the show to have not been ‘too Danish to travel’, we can see the (literally) ceremonial positioning of the series as a valuable element in the BBC’s national cultural offerings.

The shows lend themselves perfectly to this: the characters and taste cultures they represent – urbane but not glossy, socially-engaged but fashionably cosmopolitan –  are readily tied to the culturally adventurous, 'intelligent' sensibility claimed by the channel-brand’s position as discerning curator for the mass of content churning around the international marketplace. In fact it’s not entirely accurate to say that Britain has got behind the shows; the audiences are high for the 'minority' channel, but still only amount to two or three per cent of all viewers. It is precisely the specialist, high-brow status of the imports (often described in the broadsheets as ‘savvy purchases’ or ‘hand-picked gems’) that underpins their value for BBC4 as it strives to mark out a legitimate but distinct position in the more and more international multi-channel landscape. More than simply the ‘quality’ of shows themselves, then, the award marks with national prestige the channel’s ‘embrace’ of niche content from foreign shores.


Very interesting post about the role of awards as a legitimation of broadcaster taste, especially in relation to potentially controversial shifts in patterns of programming. I'm interested in the relationship between perceptions of cultural value and audience reach. A film like Shakespeare in Love (the subject of my post yesterday) comes under Andrew Higson's classification of 'quality costume drama' but is far from an elite cultural product. Its diverse mode of address had broad appeal and earned nearly $290 million in lifetime grosses according to Box Office Mojo. In her book Fans, Feminisms and ‘Quality’ Media (2002) Lyn Thomas writes that ‘texts such as the heritage film occupy a middle place in Bourdieu’s cultural hierarchy – their aspiration to "quality" and reference to high culture can only take them so far, since, like impressionist paintings, and unlike avant-garde art, they are “easy on the eye”’ (58). Niche content like Borgen, by contrast, seems to derive value from apparently limited appeal to 'discerning' audiences. And this cultural positioning doesn't just apply to foreign-language drama; media discourses around American imports like The Wire and Mad Men note that their cultural impact is out of proportion to their viewing figures. In some senses these shows seem analogous to haute couture; think of the argument made by Meryl Streep's character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada about the trickle down influence of high fashion on mass produced clothing.

Yes, these are tricky questions and fascinating in the light of the 'boutique' tendency of digital channels like BBC Four. It is, of course, all a question of what we mean by (or how we measure) that 'cultural impact', beyond just column inches in the broadsheets who try to redeem television culture. This is further complicated with a broadcaster like the BBC which, unlike HBO, is explicitly aiming to supply 'public value'. What the legitimating discourse of something like the BAFTA award does is collapse together 'cultural impact', 'public value' and the distinction of niche status, defined precisely by the very small section of the 'public' who watch or even know about shows like Borgen (aalong with, even more problematically, the use of the international markets to supply such niche content).

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