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How British television lost its nerve

Our TV used to inspire the world - but it has become safe and formulaic. Ian Burrell argues that the industry really needs to start taking risks again

If there's one thing a successful commissioning television executive must do, it's stick their necks out – and the million-dollar question is always, how far? Like the leader of a banana republic who steps onto the presidential balcony craving adulation but fearful of an assassin's bullet, the commissioner is vulnerable to the words of a poisonous critic and knows the audience can turn angry at any time. Taking risks comes with the territory.

But is British television daring enough? With the industry having undergone a long period of financial uncertainty and programme budgets tightly controlled, have commissioners and channel controllers lost their nerves? Many viewers noticed the results in the uninspired Christmas schedules.

In a recent television industry speech, Jane Root (right), a former controller of BBC2, implored broadcasters to take more chances. "If you don't fuck up really badly now and again you aren't trying hard enough," was her blunt message.

During her time at BBC2, Root commissioned The Office, a game-changer in comedy, transformed Top Gear into the leviathan it has become, and created "event" programming such as Great Britons and The Big Read. She admitted in her speech that another success, Who Do You Think You Are?, had only emerged after two previous attempts at genealogy shows had ended in failure.

She also warned her audience against seeking to piggyback on successful shows by mimicking other formats. "Now and again you'll give in to that urge for copycat programming but recognise just how bad a habit it is," she said. "Don't pretend to yourselves that it's innovation."

Speaking to The Independent, Root, who has been linked with the vacant high-ranking post of head of BBC Vision but denies she is seeking the role, questions whether many of the programmes broadcast this year on British television would leave a lasting impression on the public. "How many shows from this year will live in the memory? Downton Abbey certainly will, and there have been a few things here and there but you struggle quite hard. The big [projects] still involve a real commitment of airtime and money, you've got to slap your cards on the table and say, 'We are going to go with this one and go with this one big.'"

Root, who was the President of Discovery Networks in America before she set up a production company, Nutopia, says: "I do think the British audience, much more than the American audience, rewards innovation. The British audience are early adopters in the global television world, they are much more ready to accept something new and brutally punishing of things that they think are copycats. The American audiences are quite tolerant of having something that they like in slightly different guises."

Root's comments come at a time when broadcasters are being criticised for failings to make more distinctive programming. A recent review by the BBC Trust, the corporation's governing body, called on BBC1 to "show greater creative ambition" and produce a "more distinctive peak time schedule". The Trust also called on BBC2 to attempt to differentiate itself more, and noted that British audiences feel "dissatisfaction with the amount of fresh and new programming on television generally".

Archie Norman, the ITV chairman, told a House of Lords committee last month that the structure under which the broadcaster was obliged to operate meant that it was forced to produce programmes which cater for "the lowest common denominator". The ITV chief executive Adam Crozier bemoaned a "remarkable lack of diversity" in the broadcaster's schedule.

One of Britain's best-known independent producers Alex Graham, whose Wall To Wall company made Who Do You Think You Are? for Root at BBC2, agreed that a lack of confidence among controllers was inhibiting a creative culture.

He said innovative television did not necessarily look radically different and that he had asked for Who Do You Think You Are? "to look quite old-fashioned – I didn't want any fancy editing tricks". For Graham, the innovation is in the idea for the programme, not the presentation: "Or you end up with something which is form over content, something that is just tricksy camera work and the audience is just annoyed by it."

He says, audiences are antagonised by programmes they believe have been calculated to trigger an angry response. "Risk is not about upsetting people."

But humour is so subjective. Who decides when comedy stands triumphantly at the edge? Who deems it to have fallen into an abyss of bad taste? The exact location of the edge is even harder to define in the era of Twitter when a comment previously made to family members from the living room sofa is now transformed into a piece of television criticism relayed to an audience of thousands. Tweets comparing the new BBC comedy Come Fly With Me to "a minstrel show" have dragged the show's creators into a race row, despite the fact that creators David Walliams and Matt Lucas have a track record of playing characters of different ethnic origins. The approach, risky or otherwise, was rewarded with the year's largest comedy show audience.

Channel 4, which responds to media storms by arguing that it is part of its remit to provoke controversy, is currently enraging the equal opportunities sector by broadcasting Glasgow comedian Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights. In the show, Boyle suggested that Katie Price had married a cage fighter because she feared being sexually molested by her disabled son Harvey. She complained to the media watchdog Ofcom and posted a statement on her website saying: "To bully this unbelievably brave child is despicable, to broadcast it on television is to show a complete and utter lack of judgment." The comedian has since offended mental health groups, cancer patients and anti-racism campaigners.

Shane Allen, Channel 4's head of comedy, admits that "all humour is subjective" but says "you can measure how vibrant, tolerant and culturally rich a society is by its attitude to those that ridicule it from within." Burma and China have yet to produce a "global comedy icon", he notes. "Comedy is now one of our biggest exports and household names in America include Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen and Russell Brand, all of whom made their marks on Channel 4, all shrouded in complaint from the 'can't say that' crowd – the very crowd that made those comedians want to kick against them in the first place."

Whether Boyle will go global is open to question. Allen, unsurprisingly, believes Boyle is misunderstood and his jokes taken out of context. "He is one of the most talked-about and brilliant comics, revered by his peers and unfairly pigeonholed as merely the purveyor of controversy," he says. "Through his vicious wit and verbal craft he tears apart the inanity and hypocrisy of modern life and celebrity culture. Frankie does also do a mean line in cancer, Aids, rape and paedo jokes." Too mean, some would say.

Within the TV industry there are those who feel that in much of its output Channel 4 does not take enough risks, relying too heavily on trusted formats such as Come Dine with Me and Grand Designs. Allen argues that, in its comedy, the channel "provides a spiky and scabrous alternative to the warm-slippered stand up of BBC1 or ITV's cockroach consumption," a reference to the 10th season of I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!. The most successful British entertainment formats are almost institutions; The X Factor has completed its seventh run, and BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing has chalked up eight series.

Can Channel Five bring something new to the mix, now it is owned by Richard Desmond? According to Jeff Ford, the channel's director of programmes, there is no point in taking risk for risk's sake. Although Five will be experimenting at 10pm in the schedule to try to attract young people, it will be careful not to offend its core viewers. "The key is not to put off your heavy audiences who are usually older and more downmarket," he says. "I want to concentrate on stuff our audience knows and loves us for. If we run before we walk in this area we will suffer considerably. I would want to make sure we don't let our heartland down, [because] being the smallest terrestrial station we have the most to lose."

This time next year, after the introduction of YouView and other systems, many British families will be watching their Christmas television over the internet and the big broadcasters will hopefully be facing a new level of competition. It's about time they started pushing their necks out a bit further.