"Ideal viewer like unto Yeti. A compound of superstition and fear. Irrational to make programmes for person you can't see, can't hear, and have never met. Make what you would like to watch. All else is a species of condescension. The only ideal viewer that counts is to be found in your own heart. Love, Howard."
Maybe this is how our age will be remembered, assuming it will be remembered at all - for none of us ever knowing who we were talking to. It isn't only telly. Film-makers, publishers, newspapers too, have all been in a blind search for their ideal audience. Ten years ago the elixir-stone was youth, the quintessential pubescent who would gild all our tomorrows, transform our rags into finery, if only we could find her, him, it. I recall keeping company with elderly proprietors of newspapers in the late Eighties, inveterate betters on horses and fondlers of women (or vice versa), hunting and shooting men who had prided themselves on knowing nothing of the times in which they lived but who were suddenly reduced to having to look around them in the dark, and to asking the likes of me, though God knows I was the last one to ask, whether I'd ever seen or heard of the ideal young person currently in question. Did I know one, could I point one out, could I essay even the roughest description? What followed was almost too terrible to recount. Young people, absently doing whatever young people did, were all at once targeted, picked up off the streets, dragged out of their nurseries and classrooms, and forced into editorships of sections, supplements, magazines, sometimes of entire newspapers. Here's an office, money, secretary - now go to work, you little bastard. The reasoning was insulting to everyone: whatever and wherever the young were, they could only be attracted by themselves.
Publishers followed, throwing advances for novels at anyone who was unformed enough not to know how to write one, the only proviso being that the young novelist in question had never entertained a prior ambition to write anything, for nothing forms an unformed person as quickly as deliberation. At a stroke all television presenters were under 17, with creosote voices caused by smoking a hundred fags a day, and that tarmac and cobblestone accent you find only in a handful of unpeopled Pennine hamlets equidistant from Halifax and Leeds. It was there, researches had established, that the ideal viewer resided in his millions. A new form of travel programme was devised in which young people threw themselves energetically around the globe, never stopping in any one place long enough to observe it. Someone had discovered that the ideal viewer didn't want observation, only the price of a pint in pesetas. Arts programmes changed their natures in a hurry also. Though here the formula was even simpler. They no longer had anything to do with arts.
Now the only difference between a popular music slot and an arts slot is this: in a popular music slot a Spice Girl sings, in an arts slot a Spice Girl sings but tells you what else she'd like to do.
"Arts and music programmes are watched by only 34 per cent of viewers", according to that report which the BBC would have done better to get me to write. It's possible that that word "only" is a journalist's gloss, but it has a familiar marketing mellifluousness about it. Only 34 per cent, yeah. Poor, eh? But stop a moment. Just how many meagre millions is 34 per cent? Eight? Twelve? Fifteen? You count yourself a bestselling novelist if 10 people buy your book from Waterstone's in Basingstoke in a week. Even Jeffrey Archer, whose novels sell and read like spam sandwiches, won't have 15 million devotees in this country. So what is this "only"?
Still chasing the ideal viewer, you see, who may no longer be the pristine young thing of 10 years ago, who may have aged, mellowed, become interesting, but whose blank nature and mysterious whereabouts still haunt the imaginations of telly folk. In the ideal viewer is number, the answer to every prayer.
All other considerations aside, it has been a humiliating spectacle, a waste of talent and energy, indubitably a waste of education and expertise - an entire generation of subculture providers trying to second-guess a public of whom they have no first-hand knowledge. Why, for example, do we never see a soap or a sitcom or a drama set in a place of continuing education or about people for whom a continuing education is important? Why no more History Man? Why no more Glittering Prizes? Because an education is what telly folk have received and they mustn't under any circumstances be seen to be making programmes about themselves, about what they know, about where they've been. That would be elitist, anathema to the ideal viewer, even though just about every viewer, ideal or not, now has a minimum of three degrees.
Yes, yes, I know they don't really. But would it do any harm to act as though they did? The last line of my report, gratis: "Make less of a moron of your audience and it will surely follow that you'll make less of a moron of yourself."Reuse content