The Americans are coming for British English but were like, whatever

July 31, 2017

Thanks to the likes of Netflix, the Disney channel and Nickelodeon, it is American media that is changing the UKs culture, not Europe

A teenage granddaughter arrived for a summer stay. How was she? Im good, she said. What about you guys? She didnt go on to wish me an awesome day, but the message was still unmistakable. A child of the Disney channel and Nickelodeon, a social media devotee, she now belongs to the coming generation who, quite naturally and unthinkingly, speak American English.

Does that matter? Matthew Engel, one of journalisms great exponents of English English, clearly thinks so. As we approach 2020, the American words the British invited into their homes are in danger of taking over, he writes in his new book, Thats the Way It Crumbles. It has become possible to imagine a time 2120 would seem a plausible and arithmetically neat guesstimate when American English absorbs the British version completely. The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted.

And language, of course, is only one part of the story. All the fear and fury of the moment may be European, with America viewed askew as the alien home of Trumpism or the eventual saviour of Liam Foxs trade job: but the dominant, voracious American media culture Professor Jeremy Tunstall first identified 40 years ago in his ground-breaking The Media Are American lingers still, perhaps hungrier than ever.

Tot up a few basic elements. Sky, awaiting 100% Fox ownership, when Karen Bradley stops biting her ministerial nails. Channel 5, owned by Viacom of America. Virgin Media, owned by Liberty of America. UKTV, 50% owned by Scripps of America. Plus all manner of US-owned independent production companies and smaller channels clustering lower down on your Sky and Virgin search menus.

The indefatigable Tunstall calculated, only a couple of years ago, that as much as half of British TV viewing is American-controlled. But two years is a long time in this tumultuous media world, and TV is by no means the only show in town. Back in 2015, Facebook and Google were still thought of powerful potential friends, not enemies. Hug them close and a beleaguered print industry might find succour. Keep on good terms and the power of TV itself could continue unscathed.

Very few people harbour such illusions any longer, though the big two are trying another charm offensive even as I write. Together, last year, they attracted one-fifth of all the worlds advertising more than $106bn and their grip continues to tighten so that, on some counts, they are now taking 99% of all new revenue. Google pulled in revenues of $23bn in the second quarter of 2017. Another thumping US triumph. So is the pell-mell streaming growth of Netflix and Amazon.

Netflix, almost casually, reported one quarters subscriber growth of 5.2 million worldwide a few weeks ago. That was part of making $2.79bn, to be invested in more content, driving subscriptions ever higher, because, the company says: Creating a TV network is now as easy as creating an app, and investment is pouring into content production around the world. Some 104 million subscribers in the bag.

Netflix is backing 40 new films, predominantly American ones. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

But that content, inevitably, is overwhelmingly American. The 40 new films Netflix has just announced will be predominantly American. Netflixs close competitor, Amazon, pursues the same course. More and more digital giants including Apple, inevitably enough are joining the content contest. Some of the films and series, to be sure, are geared to particular areas (say Europe for mafia dramas). Yet the most obvious way to maximise revenue must and will always be global: one film fits all.

As for news, for words on paper and on screen, theres pretty little relief. The Murdoch empire ploughs on much as usual. The newspapers with the biggest website reach globally the Mail, the Guardian have substantially staffed US editions, which naturally means that more American coverage makes its way into British editions. Hollywood, Manhattan, celebrity gossip, to be sure, but US politics claims more prominence than ever before: more attention to complex healthcare reform, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner et al. And the language, of course, seeps along with it.

When President Trump bids farewell to his disgruntled press secretary, both BBC and ITV news lead their bulletins on this supposed upheaval. When a beleaguered Theresa May chooses the head of BBC Westminster as her new director of communications, theres barely a twitch of interest.

The current wunderkinds of net-only news the BuzzFeeds, the Vices, the Politicos, the HuffPosts are American. Thomson Reuters relocates its HQ to New York. Britains film industry prospers because it can make Hollywood blockbusters more cheaply. English actors, from Dominic West to Ruth Wilson, learn to master an American drawl and star in hit series to the manner born. Theres simply no end to the way that American-owned, American-run, American-speaking forces are taking over this blessed plot in ways that even Tunstall couldnt predict.

Perhaps, as before, you may shrug and let the waves from across the Atlantic wash over you. Isnt it European domination thats supposed to be the terminal threat to our national identity, after all? Do we care when another US communications company technical or creative sets up in London or along the M4? Because the process advances by dribs and drabs, by different bids in different fields, theres no shiver of apprehension. America, if not its president, is our friend in need. America speaks our language.

But if were not properly European, by popular vote, then what on Earth are we, as the nation supposedly takes back control? ITV and C4 arent takeover-proof by any means. Only the BBC, under constant, belittling attack, stands tall for Britain as we drift towards effective 51st statehood.

An awesome thought to leave you guys with. Have a good, pensive day.

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