Fulbright spotlight: Hilmes bound for Nottingham for US-UK broadcast research

Like millions of Americans, Michele Hilmes watches Downton Abbey. But please don’t bother her when the show is on, because she is working.

Hilmes, a professor of Media and Cultural Studies and chair of the Department of Communications Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is doing research for her next book, a follow-up to Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting (Routledge, 2011).

“My book, which came out in 2011, took this British-U.S. history up to the 1970s, so my next book takes it from there and goes forward,” she says. “There was a huge change that happened around then which was satellite broadcasting, something we take for granted now.”

Satellite broadcasting created a shift in how television was produced and sent all over the world. In her next book, she intends to analyze that shift and its effect on the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

This time, Hilmes will be taking her investigation overseas, to Nottingham, England, on a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship from the Fulbright Commission. She seized upon this opportunity when a contact from the University of Nottingham reached out to see if she was interested in the position. By chance, the seven-month program coincided with her already-planned sabbatical.

Michele Hilmes (Photo/Jeff Cartwright)
Michele Hilmes (Photo/Jeff Cartwright)

Hilmes explains that her research focuses on a specific type of television – programs made with both U.K. and U.S. audiences in mind versus shows that are adaptations, such as The Office or House of Cards.

“When we watch a program like Downton Abbey, it’s a bonding experience. We are all enjoying this wonderful drama, and we are attached to it,” she says. “It is really creating a sensibility that is uniting us across national, cultural boundaries. I call that the transnational public.”

That transnational public is especially what interests Hilmes.

“What I really want to get at, which I am not sure I can, is how they think about the public. How do they conceive of this transnational public? How do the British producers imagine the American audience and take it into account when they are coming up with ideas and vice versa.”

In drama and high-end documentary, the British broadcasters are most prominent. Hilmes points to Rome, a show that began under development in the United States, but HBO partnered with the BBC to make the show. Essentially Rome became a BBC production with American input.

“Why? Because the British have a tradition of doing that type of high-end drama. As a public service broadcaster, it is part of their public service mandate from the government to do quality drama, and so you might say they are the specialists,” Hilmes says.

“So when Americans want quality drama, we partner with the British. When the British want sitcoms and more popular entertainment shows, then the relationship goes the other way.”

This is Hilmes first venture into living abroad. She and her husband, who is retired, will move to Nottingham in August. After the program in Nottingham ends in February, they plan to stick around a bit longer and travel.

“My husband is a Francophile, so I have to convince him England is the place,” she says with a smile. “I’m sure he will discover the beauty of English pubs.”

She will return to the campus and the Department of Communications Arts for the 2014-15 academic year.

— by Jeff Cartwright