Television: Fine unless you'd like some facts

David Aaronovitch on the glaring omissions from the autumn TV schedules as the BBC braces itself for the digital onslaught

To be honest, the autumn schedules of the main terrestrial TV channels don't much matter any more. Like supermarket fruit, television has ceased to be seasonally determined. With a large and growing proportion of households receiving dozens of channels (largely consisting of second- run programmes), only a few cult shows absolutely have to be seen at the moment of first screening. Except, of course, for highly topical programmes. But you don't get many of them.

The autumn launch is intriguing, however, because it tells us what TV people - always very culturally sensitive - think of us, the viewers. What do they take us for?

This year the BBC's offerings have an added salience. With a big debate raging about the digital top-up, it's particularly important that the Beeb has a good few months. But should that be a good few high-ratings months, or a good few outstanding-programmes months? The Grail, of course, is both. But the Grail is rarely found.

BBC1's slogan for the autumn is "ambition, quality, commitment and talent". And it's hard to argue with the last three. In drama, three of the four top women TV writers are present. Debbie Horsfield has a series "set against the vibrant world of Sixties rock and roll" (cue release on CD of soundtrack); Pure Wickedness is Lucy Gannon on adultery, with David Morrissey getting his kit off; and there's a Paula Milne thriller.

The new comedies are Let Them Eat Cake, a sort of French and Saunders Blackadderette, and a Marks and Gran sitcom, Starting Out. David Jason is there in a war drama, Michael Palin follows Hemingway round the world, and animated dinosaurs walk the earth. Depressingly, the whoo-ooo series Mysteries is back, with smiling, bob-haired Juliet Morris replacing Carol Spooky Vorderman. The Hidden Camera Show is what it sounds like, and Jo Brand will present a show on the world's funniest commercials (to be distinguished from Chris Tarrant's funniest commercials).

The docusoap has finally expired, leaving us only with that folie de grandeur, Paddington Green, and revealing an almost complete absence of strong topical, factual material. Inside Story presents The Eyes of a Child, a documentary look at child poverty, but the blurb reveals the shortcomings. "The children's plea," it says, "is that someone will do something to change their lives."

But who and what and how? Oh dear, that would be current affairs, and you don't get much of that on BBC1. Or anywhere, really. So while there are some good things here, the Controller of BBC1 cannot credibly claim that his schedule is "ambitious". It's very, very safe. Established talent has been signed up - new talent will have to find a home elsewhere.

David Liddiment, the controller of ITV, has done a solid job for his advertisers, and the ITV schedule is not yet a cultural desert. But it is essentially BBC1 without Jo Brand and Michael Palin. Pride of place goes to Oliver Twist, with Robert Lindsay as Fagin; there's a romantic drama set on the Isle of Wight (but not in the 1960s, funnily enough. Perhaps all the props had gone); Sean Bean kills people in a Fugitive- type thriller; there's the obligatory John Thaw vehicle. Metropolis offers a modern drama in which "sexual intrigue, substance abuse, friendship, love and betrayal are central." Substance abuse? Do they mean drug-taking? The factual offerings are mostly about crime, save for a series looking at a school in Luton.

BBC2 promises "edgy programmes that aim to get under the skin". I think that this is where I will spend most of my autumn, together with Channel 4's American imports. But I can take or leave the comedy theme nights (The Fast Show, and Monty Python), and I can't spot too much edginess. A new sitcom, Hippies, from the Father Ted team, promises well, as does the big art series of the autumn, Renaissance.

There is a series on the Thames, and one on the Second World War on the Eastern front from the team who made Nazis: A Warning From History. But the most important theme is therapy and relationships. First there's Talking Cure, which entailed two years' filming at the famous Tavistock Centre in London, and secondly, Adult Lives, is to do with, er, sex.

I don't know what to make of Channel 4. Can Something for the Weekend, presented by Denise Van Outen ("It's about dating and mating, kissing and cruising, flirting and cheating") be as bad as it sounds? Or how about the Ex Files, in which we "follow a man or a woman as they take a brave and unique emotional journey into the past, meeting up with several of their ex-partners"? Or the fact that 4's main arts offering is a history of pornography? (Nothing wrong with that, but where did the arts go?)

Yet it's also Channel 4 that spends most time looking for the pulse of modern Britain in its Untold series about black history, in Darcus Howe's White Tribe, and in documentaries from Sedgfield, Leeds and from a failing school.

Great Experiments that Changed the World sounds sparky and different. And will you be watching Embarrassing Illnesses, which investigates ailments "from bottom problems to body odour"? Bottom problems? Tune in, find out, and thank God it's not you.

So there it is. Lots of stars, lots of sex, practically no analysis or debate. A mellow autumn, with plenty of mist. Enjoy.

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