An abject lesson in dumbing-down

Britain is getting the American habit of blaming a little square box for all society's ills

WHILE BRITAIN fights to save that great institution, News at Ten, from relocating to the slum of the TV schedule, 6.30pm, here are a few words of solace on the occasion of possible defeat.

America has aired network news at 6.30pm for years - sometimes even earlier. And we have found that having an ill-informed population never hurt us. We still get out and bomb the occasional country. That's how American youngsters learn their geography. Besides, as soon as we started dumbing down our entertainment, it became our top export. There's money in stupidity.

In fact, one network here, ABC, created a whole promotional campaign based on how dumb TV is. It had slogans like, "Don't worry, you've got billions of brain cells" and "Without TV, how would you know where to put the sofa?" This campaign was considered controversial, mainly by people whose lives were already going down the cathode ray tube. To me, it seemed rather practical. That way, if ABC's shows stank, they fitted its image.

It stands to reason that smart TV creates smart people. Just ask John Major. A spearheader of an earlier Save News at Ten movement, he managed to rescue ITV from the perils of going downmarket, but still raised a son who wants to marry a girl who appears at awards' shows semi-naked.

Besides, early evening newscasts haven't destroyed America's sense of what's important. For very urgent, pertinent issues, news producers enjoy the dramatic flourish of breaking into regularly scheduled programmes to feature our Great Leader apologising for his extracurricular activities. Unless there's a well known athlete-turned-actor on trial for a double murder. Then they'll split the screen.

While British TV seems to be following the American model of more lucrative scheduling, it's heartwarming also to note your government adopting our politicians' habit of blaming a little square box for society's ills. Except that Americans don't worry about TV making people dumb. They worry about TV making people violent. Or promiscuous. Our focus is more financially driven. Couch potatoes don't use tax dollars. Criminals and single teenage mothers do. So, here, the big outcry is about warning parents that the episode of Friends that their child is about to watch could turn him or her into a social pariah.

But it doesn't matter. The main thing is to drum into our heads the absolute corruptive power of the tube. This ignores the fact that there are video- recorders, and even broadsheets, for getting the news at other times, or that parental guidance and education enter into this equation. Although anyone smart knows that school is no longer the key to a livelihood. A rap album is.

And if Tony Blair thinks TV is dumbing down now, wait until there are 200 channels. If you don't believe me, the next time you're in the States, tune in to The Food Network. There's a cooking show for dogs. Really. The airwaves of 1998 will be remembered as a virtual Mensa convention.

Sadly, this is one time when Britain's fondness for tradition will probably bow to the economic realities of running a TV business today, where ratings rule over content. Only on lucky, rare occasions can you get both. Perhaps, in time, Britain will adjust and grow to enjoy the same vapid, short attention spans that make America the great culture it is today. Besides, it's not as if you're abolishing the Page 3 girl.

But if people are truly unhappy with the direction of British TV, I may be the wrong person to advise. Whenever I've craved decent television Stateside, I've watched shows from the BBC.

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