Why UK's e4 network produces some of the most beloved television shows for American audiences
It wasn’t just that Skins was good or even great. It was that Skins was real. And even when it didn’t seem as real as actual life, it was smart, funny, and respectful of its teenage characters. That is what drew me into the British digital e4 television network (home of Skins) and what drew many others to the network as well.
Marketed toward the 15-35 age group, e4 programming also includes US imports such as How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Revenge. Although e4 produced a handful of shows before the groundbreaking Skins, it was that show that gave the network visibility in the United States. For many, it also nurtured a love for British television in general. Whether it is the language, the humor, the nudity, or the music, what translates for audiences (in particular, young audiences) is the network’s ability to understand, showcas, and respect their lives.
Since then, e4 shows including The Inbetweeners, Misfits, My Mad Fat Diary, and the brand new Youngers have found fans abroad too. Each has a different premise, but they all feature storylines surrounding mid-to-late teenagers. This is e4’s core audience, and in terms of building a devoted fandom both in Britain and across the globe, its greatest strength.
“With e4, I know I'm going to get a show that is worth my time to watch, because it's going to entertain me, make me think, engage emotionally, or some combination of all three,” said Taylor Dalton, a 21-year-old college student from Connecticut.
Rather than watering down content because it features someone who is 18 or 19, e4 places as much warmth, seriousness, humor, and heart into these shows as any adult-targeted show.
Although some U.S. fans can watch e4 shows on networks such as Logo or online via Hulu, the majority watch online through other legal (and illegal) streaming services. e4 shows are created in the standard short-format of the majority of British television, with seasons of about six to nine episodes. This makes it especially easy for fans to catch up and to consume the show in one sitting. This also reflects the level of attention, care, and character-building needed from the start to create these new narratives. There is no room to play around with format and structure. These shows must be good from the start, and they are.
It is probably difficult to gauge the success of their shows based on the streaming available, but a quick glance on Twitter or Tumblr reflects the emotionally-invested fandom abroad. As a college junior and senior, I created a tumblr dedicated to discussing Skins. That show immediately clicked with me. Its angst and heart was missing from any of the American television shows I watched.
I think that's the success of e4,” Dalton said. “They push for the shows that are more challenging to the norm, that might be more controversial but also have a bigger payoff in terms of emotional engagement from the audience.”
e4’s popularity is real and is perhaps most evident in the numerous attempts by MTV to re-make their shows for American audiences. These attempts (Skins and The Inbetweeners) were both canceled after one season, even though their original British counterparts were immensely popular. The Inbetweeners is still on the air and culminated in a movie, a box office smash that became the highest grossing British comedy of all time. Skins has thus far spawned six seasons with plans for a movie.
But one of the major mistakes MTV made was that they assumed the premise of the shows was enough to bring in fans. MTV’s versions frequently changed core character elements of e4’s shows (such as removing diversity and changing a character’s sex). What MTV failed to realize was that these shows were perfect from the start. Their shows are not watered down, actors are never “too beautiful,” cursing and nudity are present just like real life, and for the most part, things like drugs, sex, sexuality, and violence are treated with a level of respect that doesn’t sensationalize them. American audiences are not as challenging as entertainment creators suspect. An accent or nudity or cursing won’t deter eyes (just look at the success of Game of Thrones). When it comes to shows about and featuring the everyday lives of young people, the more true to reality the better.
E4 shows often experiment with direction, cinematography, music choice, and story structure. With the exception of The Inbetweeners, which is a straightforward comedy, many e4 shows are a combination of comedy and drama, reflecting the realities of real life: times can be good and they can be terrible, often within only a few minutes of each other. In addition to the story arcs, I was also drawn to e4’s shows because of their diversity, whether it was of experience or of race and ethnicity. Jal, a black female character from the first two seasons of Skins, and Alicia, (seen above) from the first three seasons of Misfits, are still some of my favorite characters of all time.
“E4 does an amazing job of being diverse without feeling like it’s meeting some “racial quota,” said Zora Hurst, an 18-year-old from Iowa City. “ There are so many different backgrounds, nationalities and orientations mashed together that it feels like real life, like real blindingly-painfully-nauseatingly unflattering life.”
Other fans agree.
“They deal with racism, sexism, gender expression, fatphobia, mental health and more. And they deal with it in a relatable way,” said chelsea cleveland, a 24-year-old from New London, Connecticut. “I can see myself in these characters. I can see my friends.”
More than anything, e4 shows, while marketed and usually about teens, are written with respect and care for their audiences. The actors are real. The scenarios are real. The humor, lust, angst, and fears of their characters are real.
“These projected realities seem tangible ... simply because they are inclusive of POC and Queer characters,” said Felix Ruben Ortiz Cruz, a 21-year-old Skins fan from Jacksonville, North Carolina. “Their inclusion is not what defines my love for these shows and these characters; it’s the writers and producers’ ability to let these characters flourish by their own accord that makes keep me attentive.”
Audiences across the globe have connected with their shows, making them successes in a way not seen with traditional television marketed toward young adults. They are not implausible like Gossip Girl or melodramatic and model-driven like The O.C. or The Vampire Diaries. No, e4’s shows are great because they find a kernel of truth that many audiences want and need to truly love a show. If anything, e4 is saying we hear you. We get you.
Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.