It's time to stand up for the elitist view of television

The words dikes, holes, boys and fingers spring to mind when contemplat ing the new Age of TV
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The Independent Culture
I ALWAYS say that just 'cos the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Major and Gerald Kaufman agree on something, it don't necessarily mean that it ain't so. Our three doubtful heroes all oppose the shunting back in the ITV schedules of the country's most famous news programme, News At Ten, because they fear that it is a sign of what the Germans might call Unterdummung. And - despite ITV's protestations to the contrary - the move, which was announced yesterday afternoon, is exactly that. At 11pm, audiences will drop by at least a third, as many citizens retire to bed, exhausted after the Big Movie.

Of course, we've heard a lot this week about how all this is inevitable; we are moving inexorably to the deregulated TV world. Elisabeth Murdoch and successful independent producer Peter Bazalgette have variously used the platform provided for them at Edinburgh's TV festival to argue the case for deregulation. How anachronistic all these three-initial bodies - ITC, BCC - look set against the backdrop of the digital future! The words dikes, holes, boys and fingers spring to mind when contemplating the new Age of TV. No, the viewer must be allowed to decide what and how they watch.

Indeed, a taste of this coming universe of complete viewer choice was available in an ad in this newspaper's Media pages on Tuesday. The Comedy Channel featured a man who declared: "I want to watch Seinfeld every night. Not just once a week. Can't wait. Won't wait." In these circumstances how can commercial channels possibly compete if someone keeps trying to tell them what to do?

Anyway, said Baz and Liz, that's what the BBC is for; to do the things that no one else wants or can afford to do. Auntie can flirt with unpopularity because it is funded by the licence fee, and because higher things are expected from it. As long as the Beeb maintains its public service remit, what does it matter what the other channels do?

Oh but it does. The BBC long ago realised that the political basis of the licence fee rests on its all-round popularity as much as upon the singularity of its mission. It certainly will not have enjoyed the Independent Television Commission's research findings, published yesterday, showing that viewers think of the Corporation as "staid, stuffy and establishment... like Queen Victoria or John Major". If ratings drop too far, then even wall-to-wall Colin Firth in wet shirts won't save it in the long run. In the short term this means that if ITN does move News At Ten backwards, all kinds of weird things will begin to happen over at Television Centre.

For a start ITV will begin to schedule bonkbusters beginning at the 9pm watershed. Programmes like Panorama (in which I must declare a familial interest), now going out in the 10pm slot, will find themselves up against the climactic hour of Lethal Willy 3 or something. The Nine O'Clock News will coincide with the opening, explosive titles. In ratings terms the Beeb could be rubbed out. Newsnight, on BBC2 at 10.30pm, could also find itself vulnerable to slippage, especially in 18 months time when Sir John Birt (who fought for its current slot) has gone to serve his country elsewhere.

At which point we could raise our hands palm upwards, along with Alfred E Neuman and the current affairs executives from the commercial companies, and ask "What me worry?" Is it not a fact, m'lud, that there is more factual material on telly than ever before? It's just that the old arrogant approach to current affairs ("a thing is important because a producer thinks its important") has been ditched for the new "relevant to people's lives" strand.

This is a classic weasel, used by intelligent executives to justify just how far they have strayed from their own youthful, idealistic enthusiasm for truth and salience. And if you don't believe me take a look at next week's Radio Times. We can agree, I think, that we do not live in an era short on big news. At the moment there is the crisis in Russia, the prospect of a global recession, extraordinary developments in Ireland, further evidence of global warming, an impasse at the heart of the British welfare state, a resurgence of terrorism from the Middle East and the deepening of the problems in the Tiger economies. And how does this reflect itself in non-news factual programmes next week? There is nothing. Nada. Zip.

What Me Worry? ITV can offer us Estate Agents, followed by Office Affairs, "a series of frank interviews detailing what can happen when people conduct affairs that start in the workplace". Then there's Fat, "a six part series examining people's concerns about body fat". On Tuesday in the old current affairs doc slot, we are offered Chippendales: A Secret History. We may thrill to a First Edition on headlice, and worry about Crime Fighters. Police, Camera, Action and the new Motorway Life, which is essentially Police, Camera, Action without the police or the action.

Lest the ITV bods think I'm getting at them we might reflect that on Monday the one prime-time current affairs slot goes to a show featuring "an undercover item on telephone lines offering bogus tarot readings that are deliberately extended to inflate the bill". As opposed, presumably, to those lines that offer accurate tarot readings, done crisply. Then there's Newsnight and Channel 4 News - and that's it.

On the same day you can watch seven hours of talk shows on the five terrestrial channels. Start on BBC1 with Kilroy at 9am, followed by Sex Wars at 10am. On BBC2 a new series of Esther begins, bizarrely, with Carol Vorderman "exploring modern-day father-son relationships". ITV has Vanessa at 9.25, Jerry Springer at 1.30 (today's as I write is "Your Lover's A Loser" and features so much bleeped out material it is virtually incomprehensible). Channel 4 offers Montel Williams at 5 and X-Rated Ricki at 10.55pm ("a father's choice of clothing has attracted the attention of his grandchildren's transvestite nanny"). Channel 5 wins with not one, but two bites of Oprah (9.30 and 5.10), sandwiching Leeza (11.10).

This, remember is the regulated schedule. Try and guess what the unregulated one would look like. But oh, what an elitist I am! Isn't this talk-show hell what people want? Regulation is a surely a patronising act. Regulators tell people what they ought to want - but actually they don't. They are sophisticated enough, say Liz and Baz, to know what they're interested in.

Ah, but are the broadcasters sophisticated enough to interpret the evidence properly? My position may well be: give people - at least partially - what they ought to want. But what is the alternative? To give people what they say they want? To give people what they think they ought to want? To give people what they think their kids ought to want? Or, as I suspect, to give people more of what they watch most already?

Which, I think, means giving the majority of people nothing that they don't want. Or, to put it another way, it means giving a minority of people almost nothing that they do want. Independent readers are, of course, just such a minority. True, we happen to be a minority that advertisers would give their right arms for. So we must stand up and fight for the telly we want. Write in to ITV. Tell them ne touchez pas a mon Trevor! Long live Gerald Kaufman! Vivat Cantuar!