Thursday Book: Topless darts, clueless television

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The Independent Culture
L!VE TV is "available" in more than 2.5 million homes, according to the cable station. But it is available in the same sense that staring at the wheels going around on your electricity meter is available as a leisure pursuit. Chris Horrie's and Adam Nathan's book makes it clear that, for entertainment value, the meter probably wins out over L!ve.

With the departure of David Montgomery from Mirror Group, L!ve TV's backers, the main protagonists in the station's story have gone, Kelvin MacKenzie to Talk Radio and Janet Street-Porter to her own production company, while Montgomery, presumably, is looking for a new company to display his cost-cutting skills.

It might, then, be asked: why write a book about a little-watched cable channel notorious more for its stunts and poorly paid staff than for its impact on British viewers? Yet this is much more than the story of trampolining dwarfs and Norwegian babes presenting the weather. By tracing the careers of the three main players, the authors attempt to tell the tale of British television over the last 20 years - the way Horrie did with tabloid newspapers in Stick it Up Your Punter, his earlier book on The Sun.

Horrie picks up where he left off there, his argument being that many of the same characters who ruined British popular newspapers have been allowed to do likewise to British television. The book identifies a point in the early Eighties when many influential television types seemed to grasp the concept of "selling the sizzle, not the sausage" - in other words, style over substance. It identifies Street-Porter as one of many beneficiaries of this move to content-free programming, charting her career back to her much-imitated "yoof" programmes, Network 7 and Def II.

The book wickedly explains what L!ve TV is for and why it is as bad as it is. Horrie and Nathan make it plain that it was never really about viewers. Created because of the cable industry's need to compete with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, the channel was to be funded not primarily by advertising or viewers' subscriptions; instead, Mirror Group was to get 25p for every subscriber who signed up to a cable TV package, as a kind of payment for its newspapers to promote cable in the way The Sun supports Sky.

However, things went wrong when a major cable company, which was supposed to join a consortium to bid against Sky for sports rights, decided instead to sign a deal to work with Sky. Immediately, the likelihood of millions signing up for cable disappeared. And so did the rationale for L!ve TV. It has never really had one since.

The book rattles along, rendering the complex world of international television deals with a sardonic and humorous eye, but it becomes really funny when the channel gets on air. The original L!ve TV was Britain's first completely vacuous television channel. No one had any idea how to fill the air time, except that it had to be "trendy" and "happening" and appeal to "yoof". But even that rather limited brief could not be fulfilled with the tiny budget.

The channel had few experienced personnel. Instead, young, good-looking wannabe stars - christened "tellybrats" - were signed. The technology meant to give the station 24 hours of live output from parties and clubs never really worked. Endlessly repeated vox pops and micro-celebrities filled the airwaves. Crews of inexperienced youngsters were sent into London's West End to get into parties. They were often turned away but could not have transmitted anyway because the outside-broadcast trucks were the wrong kind.

Presenters were reduced to filming themselves going shopping or doing the washing-up. Bad ad-libbing and strange sex games which either did not work or (when they did) broke television regulations were stretched out to fill the hours. The few guests the channel could attract were self- publicising weirdos who would have made Jerry Springer wince. It was supposed to be Hello! magazine on acid, but it wasn't even that good.

After five months MacKenzie, originally supposed to oversee Mirror Group's sports TV business, asserted his power and Street-Porter walked out. MacKenzie created the channel that is now famous - famous, but still rubbish. Stunts such as the News Bunny, the Norwegian weather presenters and topless darts gave the channel great name-recognition - but still few viewers.

Horrie's previous book on The Sun was more entertaining, partly because - despite L!ve's message about the future direction of TV - it is still nothing like as culturally important as MacKenzie's Sun. And not quite as funny. The funniest anecdotes in this book are still those about the glory days of tabloid excess. But L!ve TV comes close - as close, we should hope, as British television will ever come to being truly tabloid.