Media: Darling, you were awful

What use are television awards, when all around there is evidence that standards are plummeting?

EXCESSIVE SELF-REGARD goes with the territory if you work in television. And there are few better places to witness it than the Bafta awards, where jobbing soap actors are lauded as stars and any producer who has made more than a couple of programmes has a strong mathematical chance of mounting the podium. If you don't score with Best Drama Series, try Best Drama Serial. If both fail, there's always Best Single Drama.

The Royal Television Society Awards and National Television Awards are also occasions for the television industry to tell the television industry how well the television industry is doing. Neither, though, does it quite so ostentatiously as the Baftas.

Yet the awards have singularly failed to impinge upon the public consciousness in the way that the Emmys do in the US. I'd bet that barely one member of the public can name one of last year's winners.

The broadcasters, of course, take them all too seriously. Following the BBC's 21 of 29 prizes on Sunday night, its director of programmes, Alan Yentob, put out a press release reminding us that "these are awards for boldness, innovation and ambition - exactly the path that the BBC continues to pioneer".

Up to a point, Mr Yentob. It's also worth remembering that the Best Light Entertainment Performance was won by Michael Parkinson, brought out of chat-show retirement because none of his many replacements could get the ratings.

Certainly, some outstanding performances were honoured, even if the announcer did say A Rather English Marriage was the first time Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney had worked together for 16 years. Theatre clearly doesn't count in television-land.

But the backslapping should not disguise the fact that this is far from a vintage period for television. Interestingly, the most incisive speech of the evening came from Bafta's president, the Princess Royal. She said: "There are major challenges facing broadcasters with the advent of apparently endless digital channels. To find the discipline to make programmes of quality and distinction will be harder than ever."

John Birt has added his voice to those lamenting the dearth of cutting- edge sitcoms, while others at the apex of the BBC are worried about the dismal quality of Saturday night viewing. The faking of interviews on shows such as Vanessa, whose transfer from ITV cost pounds 3m, has shamed the broadcasters. The revelation that seemingly anarchic Have I Got News For You is scripted has disappointed viewers. Top sports coverage on terrestrial TV is diminished yearly while the BBC pours funds into Internet and round- the-clock news services when the general viewer, like the Royal viewer, simply wants better quality programming.

And now a British Film Institute report compiled over the past four years and leaked to the trade journal Broadcast, has found that most TV production staff believe quality has deteriorated since 1994. Staggeringly, only 1 per cent thought quality had improved. Fifty-five per cent said ethical standards were lower, almost half said accuracy had suffered, and 40 per cent thought technical standards were lower. More than a third felt creative standards had fallen.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has a wealth of talent in its higher echelons, people such as Lord Puttnam, the best chairman the BBC never had. Why does Bafta not harness these talents into working parties to answer the concerns of the BFI survey? That would be more useful than awards. Alternatively, Bafta should, as other award-givers do, deliberately refrain from presenting some awards next year. A sitcom category in which none was worthy of a prize would certainly concentrate minds.

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