During my year as a television executive in the United States, I was continuously struck by the difference between the two countries. Oregano is not a herb, but an erb. The former head of the FBI was J Edgar Oover and Bill Clinton was married to Illary. In religion, society, politics and culture, the differences are starker.
Yet we are both glued together in a world where what happens in Yemen or Yugoslavia affects lives in Boston or Bristol. A global economy is fed and powered by a worldwide information system, and cultural trends - reality TV, Harry Potter, rap music - slip seamlessly across the Atlantic.
There is much to admire on American television. It is hard to imagine a long-running British network series as literate as The West Wing or as brilliant and enduring as The Simpsons. But these are a tiny number of programs at the top of a food chain that is long, bland and tasteless, like the endless fast-food restaurants on the edges of American towns, where Arby's and Denny's, McDonald's and Taco Bell compete for neon attention.
Hours of cloned entertainment jostle with lame comedies and drama-by-numbers. Every hour is crammed full of commercials, encouraging a form of television attention deficit disorder. In this environment, Americans watch anything. An eating contest, The Chicken Wing Bowl, attracted 20,000 stadium spectators. Never one to miss a trick, Fox has run a televised food-guzzling contest, The Glutton Bowl.
But it is on news and current affairs that American TV is shown at its most dispiriting. No nation needs independent and impartial media more than the US, a sprawling and diverse democracy in which only 16% of people hold passports.
Yet during the Iraq conflict the problem wasn't just the US flag fluttering in the corner of the screens or the loose language from embedded reporters using "we"; it was also that much of the coverage, particularly on the cable channels, could have been written and produced by the White House.
When Fox star Bill O'Reilly interviewed retired generals before the attack on Baghdad, he airily dismissed their caution and told his viewers that the US should go in and "splatter" the Iraqis.
Interviews with military superhawks were balanced by regular strength hawks, dissenters reduced to soundbites at protest rallies and described as "the usual protesters" or even "the great unwashed".
Chillingly, the media consulting firm Frank Magid Associates warned that covering war protests might be harmful to a station's bottom line. Another consultant group urged radio stations to make listeners "cry, salute, get cold chills!" Go for the emotions, and air the national anthem each day.
Fox News led the way as the military cheerleader, apparently giving both viewers and politicians what they wanted. Contra scandal star Oliver North reported on the ground for Fox. The channel's proud slogan is "Real Journalism, Fair and Balanced", but as columnist Tom Shales put it: "The only word with any truth in it is 'and'."
The success of Fox has pushed other stations to the right. MSNBC recently hired Michael Savage, whose radio program Savage Nation makes Fox News look like the Guardian. On radio, Savage gave his solution to the Middle East conflict: "We are the good ones and they, the Arabs, are the evil ones. They must be snuffed out from the planet and not in a court of law."
There was little or no debate. America's leaders remained unchallenged. Any lack of patriotism was punished with McCarthyite vigor, even in the television industry, where CBS's Ed Gernon was summarily dismissed for a mild case of expressing his opinion.
For all the warts on British television, a year in America taught me just how lucky we are to have not just the BBC but also a range of diversely funded channels with different layers of public service ambitions and obligations. The lesson from America is that, if news and public affairs are left purely to the market, it will most likely give the government what it wants.
This swamp of political cravenness was a timely reminder of the values and obligations of public television. Its birthmarks - independence, universality, diversity of opinion and quality - should be especially visible at times of war. Now, as I return home, it looks as if the giants of American media might be following me. I am being stalked by Viacom and Disney.
We have to hope that Ofcom makes a better fist of regulation than the US Federal Communications Commission, which has overseen a dramatic reduction in the diversity of ownership in US radio and recently voted to allow media consolidation in television. But defending the independence, quality and range of British television culture against the muscularity of the US media giants is a tall order for a start-up regulator.
Media consolidation is a careless risk that should never have been contemplated - we are playing with matches when we don't need to start a fire. American majors will defend their bottom line with all the political influence, commercial muscle and legal firepower they can muster.
If the government has its way over the next few weeks, we have to hope that Ofcom rises to the task and that in 10 years' time American television's influence here still represents the distinctiveness of The Sopranos, not the wasteland that is the rest of US television.
I will leave the final word to a friend named Bill, who runs a small New England restaurant. He said to me: "British television, now that's a nice piece of cheese. I heard on the radio that our guys might be moving in there. John, for heaven's sake, stop it - by the time they finish there'll be no cheese at all."
John Willis is the BBC director of factual and learning, and former vice president in charge of national programs at WGBH in Boston.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003