TELEVISION / Beginning with the worst of intentions: In the first of a new weekly column Mark Lawson watches the early offerings from the new franchise holders and finds the omens for television's future depressing

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The Independent Culture
Viewers may think that the reason that companies awarded 10-year franchises to run an ITV region have always been required to start broadcasting on 1 January has something to do with calendar neatness or accounting years. Not so. Historically, the date was chosen because - in line with a great British tradition - each of the new television companies began on 1 January with a whole list of worthy resolutions they would subsequently prove unable to keep. The moment in 1983 when TV-am's identifying catch- phrase changed overnight from 'mission to explain' to 'Hello, rat fans' (with a rodent glove-puppet replacing Peter Jay as conscience of the operation) remains the most obvious cultural shorthand for this phenomenon.

But the first offerings of the two largest new ITV companies in the 1993 dispensation - Carlton (which knocked out Thames) and GMTV (the conqueror of TV-am) - were the equivalent of New Year resolutions to get fatter, take less exercise, forget a foreign language and burn the complete works of Shakespeare. They started where Roland Rat ended up. In a moment, as they say on television, we will discuss this new development. But, first, let's take a look at some of the programmes.

GMTV (ITV, daily) - the initials apparently stand for Good Morning Television, but Grinning Morons Television would seem more plausible from the early fare. Even Roland Rat might have consulted his conscience about Toast Office Tower, in which celebrities are invited to build the highest possible stack of grilled and buttered bread. (If successful, the messier but more challenging Trifle Eiffel would presumably follow.)

Over on their sofa, main presenters Michael Wilson (Des Lynam without the jokes) and Fiona Armstrong (Anne Diamond without the intellect) were trying to build a steeple of saccharin. They interviewed star guests Michael Aspel and wife Elizabeth Power, who plays Arthur's fancy woman in EastEnders. (The topic most often discussed on populist television is populist television.) Wilson's eyes suddenly glazed over more than normally, a clue to the viewer that be was receiving ear- piece instructions from the gallery. A bomb? A war? Er, no. 'I'm being asked to ask you if Arthur's a good kisser,' he told Power.

GMTV's programme director, Lis Howell, was quoted yesterday as saying that an early piece of fine tuning was that Fiona Armstrong would smile more and wear shorter skirts.

Surprise Party (ITV, New Year's Day). Carlton's first contribution to the whole network (as opposed to its local London programming) introduced Richard Branson, believing that he had come to the studio for a quiet interview about ballooning, to a hangarful of his family and mates. They hugged him and told reputation- sustaining anecdotes.

The show's familial resemblance to the Thames show This Is Your Life is so great as to suggest either a parched ideas reservoir or a deliberate challenge of 'anything you can do, we can do better'. While quite as polite as This Is Your Life in its selections from the guest's biography (no failures, no enemies), Surprise Party cleverly affects to be modern by borrowing the tactics of prank programming, the dominant genre of the current schedules, its heroes Jeremy Beadle and Noel Edmonds. Hidden cameras are used to set up the subject: Branson failed, for example, to guess that his chatty cab driver was Phil Collins in disguise. The only real edge in the programme was a hidden one. Branson, the first guest, was one of the failed bidders against Carlton for the franchise. This in-joke suggests an inner nastiness about Carlton which may serve it well in the ruthless business it has entered.

London Tonight (daily, Carlton region only). A brisk round-up of murders in the region was backed by soft rock music, a new taste failure for British television, presumably intended to make the deaths more like those on television: a Morse code approach to death. The name of a man who had challenged an attacker was straightfacedly captioned: 'Have-a-go-hero'. Nor was the absence of cameras at a story a drawback: reconstructions were acted out.

This 60-minute capital news programme seems, on early evidence, to continue the Americanisation of ITV news, begun by the revamped 'Over to you, Peter . . . Thanks, Trevor' News at Ten. The key to American network news is that only a percentage of the items are time-tied to the day on which the bulletin transmits. The rest is general whither-America material. The reports on the first London Tonight about the drug Ecstasy ('More on The Love Drug That Kills coming up') and the crime of car-jacking - could have been broadcast any night since the summer. If ratings falter, I would suggest a Spot The News contest.

A pattern begins to emerge from these programmes: a fear of the serious, a belief that a programme which is live is automatically a programme that is lively, an acceptance of America as the template for our television. None of this is accidental. One of the biggest threats facing British television is that viewers find the internal politics of the medium a turn-off. This is aesthetically the correct position - even I would rather watch Jeremy Beadle than read a position paper by the managing director of BBC-TV - but, practically, it allows governments a free shot at the box. There is a connection between legislation and what appears on the screen, and the new ITV schedules demonstrate this.

The above shows are a result of a change in the political attitude to the third channel. Although the old TTV had the exterior appearance of a vulgarly American market-led service - I, like many middle-class children, was discouraged from even watching it, in favour of the sterner BBC - this was essentially an illusion caused by the advertisements that divided the items. ITV was, to return to the analogy with which we started, still a controlled diet: among the money-spinning popcorn, there was to be so much high-fibre documentary and wholesome home-grown produce, some of it to be taken at certain times (World in Action at 8.30 on Mondays, the News at Ten). The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) existed to ensure that the pledges were adhered to, being, to extend the analogy of January resolutions, a sort of Weight Watchers with attitude.

But the IBA was replaced by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), whose plenary powers are less those of Weight Watchers than of partner mumbling that the trousers look a little tight. Under a process initiated by Margaret Thatcher, though later disowned by her, the franchises were awarded not, as in the past, for a fixed fee to a contender selected on merit, but to the highest bidder - a cynical echo of the blind selection from envelopes on TV game shows - with the franchise holders' payments to the Treasury thus becoming greater than before. The controlled diet was replaced by the quest for fat profits.

Hence the nutritionally restricted programmes discussed above. Hence the need for GMTV to be crasser even than TV-am, for its annual wad to the Treasury is far greater than that paid by the late station, the most profitable broadcaster in British history. Hence the likelihood that World in Action and News at Ten will spend the next six months on trial for their time-slots, charged with higher ratings. More on The Love Drug That Kills coming up, you might say.

It is routine to be rude about the 'Birtism' of BBC news coverage. But given a choice between that and Carlton's London Tonight - on which an oxygen mask was squashed against the camera lens in case the film about teenagers dying from drugs lacked bite - I do not find it a hard choice.

(Photograph omitted)