Dumb Britannia 3. Television - The one-eyed hypnotist;

There are those who insist that `the idiot box' is the century's great instrument of dumbnation. Yes, TV has its limitations, but let's not be stupid about it.
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The Independent Culture
Has television dumbed down? If you believed some people you might doubt that down was a direction that was even available to it: "Radio and television have succeeded in lifting the manufacture of banality out of the sphere of handicraft and placed it in that of a major industry," wrote Nathalie Sarraute in 1960. But her remark hardly had the character of a stunning apercu even then. Dumb was what television was about, after all. It had already been fingered as the assassin of conversation, as cheap gin for the unlettered, as a one-eyed hypnotist that would brainwash your children and blue-rinse your judgement. Its hostile nick-names ("boob tube", "idiot box") cemented the association between the machine and moronism. Like most received opinions, this one wrapped a core of error in a coating of truth. Television could easily appear banal and lowering, it was true, but it also offered a dramatic enlargement of most people's horizons, socially and intellectually.

The education could take odd forms because television was such a universal and indiscriminate culture - with no strict conditions of entry. Coronation Street remained the favourite viewing of Sir John Betjeman until his death, and you could take that regular rendezvous between a Poet Laureate of the suburban upper crust and the inhabitants of a working class Manchester street as emblematic of television's powers of social miscegenation. Television opened this country up to itself in a way that had never been possible before. That needs stating bluntly, given the prevailing current of opinion: the general population in 1999 is better informed and educated than it was in 1947 and that is in large part due to television. It is an astonishing cultural resource and only long familiarity can have bred our contempt for it. Only the truly dumb could watch it and learn nothing.

This isn't to imply that the past constitutes a golden age. All golden ages are tricks of the light, an era seen as it dips below the horizon, so that high points are gilded with sunlight and low points disappear into a forgiving obscurity. However, it doesn't mean that there is nothing to be anxious about in current television culture. The truth is slightly more complicated than either formulation - television today is both better and worse than that of the past, more practised and polished in its means but frequently less ambitious and enterprising in its ends. To use a geographical metaphor, you might see this as the difference between a young volcanic landscape and one that bears the impression of long years of weather. In its infancy television offered a kind of romantic ruggedness - the peaks were high but rarely smooth, and the gulfs were often precipitous. Now the undoubted high points that remain rise from great alluvial plains of mediocrity - smooth and well-cultivated mediocrity, it's true, but mediocrity none the less. Good television is better but there's less of it; bad television is less incompetent but far more extensive.

This is partly a simple truism - five networks broadcast 24 hours a day, and that doesn't even begin to take account of the vast proliferation of cable and satellite channels. Despite the best efforts of media studies courses, the talent available to broadcasters has not expanded at anything like the same rate. Something odd has happened to competition too - which has increasingly become a debilitating rather than invigorating force. This wasn't always the case - the arrival of ITV saved the BBC from itself - but that dynamic tension obeyed specific local conditions. Because a public service broadcaster had been first on the scene in Britain and had been allowed to flourish unhampered until its roots were deep, the arrival of competing flora could not kill it off. In the United States, where public service broadcasting was an afterthought, it has always struggled in the shadow of the big commercial networks.

Now competition in this country is more likely to provoke sameness than freshness - if you doubt that, look at the wall-to-wall makeover programmes, or the endless copy-cat soap docs. Even Channel 4 has increasingly pursued the route of imitation rather than innovation.

Some of this is due to what you might call the cabling of terrestrial television - the intrusion of a homogenising instinct into a culture that previously had plenty of room for idiosyncratic demographics. And again our local circumstances make Britain a special case in global television culture. If you live in Turkey or Australia there's a fair chance that the Discovery Channel will provide your best port of call for serious documentaries. The benchmark of quality they represent will often exceed that to be found from domestic broadcasters. Even in the US, cable channels can make a fair claim to have lifted the standards of terrestrial broadcasters: with The Simpsons, the best sitcom of the last two decades, Fox demonstrated that intelligence was not incompatible with mass popularity; with The Larry Sanders Show, HBO showed that there was an audience for a darker, more edgy kind of comedy.

In this country, though, the example and demands of cable are more likely to drive standards down than up. Cable here has demonstrated that cheap and cheerful television can draw large audiences, particularly if its cheerfulness is sauced with sexual titillation. You can find terrestrial imitations of Sky's Uncovered series (drunken British tourists getting their tits out for the lads) on most channels. And cable has also suborned British film-makers by providing a new and insistent overseas customer. The most conspicuous example of this is the BBC's recent deal with the Discovery Channel, an international broadcaster which, according to the remarks of one executive, regards a curious 12-year-old boy as its platonic ideal of the average viewer. The Discovery deal is not the end of civilisation exactly, but its effects are already discernible - an explicatory caution that assumes very little of the audience and which prizes interesting facts above provoking argument. Anecdotes are notoriously insubstantial foundations for any large-scale judgement but the story of the British film-maker who was asked by another international cable supplier whether his documentary series about Jerusalem needed quite so much of that stuff about the conflict between Arabs and Jews has a certain illustrative force.

British terrestrial television has its own native vices, and when it comes to the presentation of complex ideas two stand out. The first is the importance of the celebrity in our culture - which affects not only the way in which popular middle-brow programming is made (anyone for Robin Williams with dolphins?) but also more intellectual productions. Arts television in particular has become fixated on the life over and above the work. Marketing, too, has come to play an increasing role in dictating the agenda of television - it would be remarkable now to find a single documentary about a dead cultural figure that arrived unattached to a blockbuster exhibition or a new Hollywood adaptation. "Because Titian is fascinating" would no longer be a satisfactory answer to the question, "Why do you want to make a film about Titian?"

The second besetting sin of current television is the apparently unbreakable conviction that adversarial debate is the best way to present intellectual content. This is partly an expression of our engrained passion for dialectic, partly a belief that disagreement is a kind of spice that will make even the dullest matter palatable. Most journalists will have had the experience of being rung up by a researcher who doesn't ask "what do you think about X?" but rather "would you feel able to argue against X, because we've already got someone in favour of it". In truth controversy on television is a neutralising force, a kind of blandness in itself - it's a way of taking the sting out of any argument by supplying it in a banded pack with its own analgesic. You don't like what this person is saying? Well here is someone saying precisely the opposite. Choose your champion and let your brain relax. In this world of artificial confrontation, intelligence is sometimes forced to adopt a mulish dumbness to make itself felt at all. For my money one of the smartest moments on television in the last five years was the Newsnight interview in which Jeremy Paxman repeated the same question to Michael Howard over and over again - temporarily refusing to play the game by its established rules and thus establishing just how artificial the game was. It was a moment that demonstrated, rather better than blockbuster series or serious late-night documentaries, that it isn't by adhering to conventions that television will keep its intellectual edge, but by seeking to overturn them.

how dumb are we?

"In my view, whilst TV people spend a huge amount of money making dramas and will often adapt classic works, or prize-winning authors, publishers will print whatever is going to sell the most. I, for instance, have often been asked to simplify my books or rework them with pictures and speech- bubbles."

Helen Cresswell, children's author

"Art is viewed as airy-fairy, whilst practicality is thought to be a good thing. I was taught theatre at university, which you could say was pointless, but it prepared my wits, flexibility and personality for the work I do today. If I were to return to my old college now, however, I would see people training to be art administrators, because these jobs make money. In the long run that's not practical. I may have had a classical education, but I saw what happened to the Greeks and the Romans, and I see what will happen to us."

AL Kennedy, writer

The speakers are contributing to a conference, Culture Wars, Dumbing Down, Wising Up? at the Riverside Studios, London W8, 5-7 March

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