How to talk back to your telly

BBC2's The Net invites viewers to sound off at the programme through their modems. And as Charles Arthur found out, its makers are excited by what they hear
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"There's an e-mail from Richard Dawkins!" John Wyver gazes intently at the computer screen, reading through the messages that have arrived in the half hour since the latest episode of his programme, The Net, was broadcast on BBC2. A response from one of the country's foremost scientific thinkers (who has memorably described religion as "a thought virus") is bound to excite.

Unfortunately, Dr Dawkins is not wholly enthusiastic: he thinks that the last of the programme's four pieces, expanding on a book idea by the Mancunian science fiction novelist Jeff Noon, was "pretentious crap". Scientific thinking can be surprisingly blunt.

Other e-mails reflect the same opinion about that piece. " 'Arty-farty cyber-drivel'," Mr Wyver reads aloud. "Oh dear. 'No more hippy crap please.' Well, they really didn't like that. Oh, here's one: 'The programme was great, much better than last week's ... the piece on electronic cash was very interesting and the Liberal Democrats, too. But the stuff about the book was rubbish.' Oh, well."

But Mr Wyver is not downcast by this response. He feels excited. Since the programme ended he has been in touch with about a hundred of its viewers via the IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which allows people to have text-based conversations in real time, and via e-mail. It takes 10 person-days to update The Net's Web site each week, and hours to answer the e-mail that comes in. Wyver's production company, Illuminations, bears this as an extra expense. He sees it as an investment.

In the week to come before the next programme goes out, hundreds more will visit the World Wide Web site http://www.bbcnc.org.uk/bbctv/the_net /index.html), 1,500 people will receive more information through the programme's mailing list, and discussions about it will continue in the Usenet newsgroup uk.media. Compared with its million viewers, that may not seem like much. But Wyver is quick to put it in context.

"Usually when you make a TV programme it can be a dispiriting business, because you don't get responses from the audience. You get a handful of comments from friends and family, but not much else apart from a few letters. These are real, genuine, thoughtful responses from the audience, which is useful."

And, one notices, even when the response is rude, it is at least politely rude. Though Wyver does occasionally betray exasperation at the requests for more technical content: "We're not Tomorrow's World or Newsnight," he comments. "It's a series about ideas, not technology."

To John Wyver, who left his job as TV editor of the London listings magazine Time Out in 1983 to set up Illuminations, the Internet is only the beginning. "We can see this as a very crude, embryonic form of a new medium. It's a different form from the one-to-many of TV, towards a many-to-many. It's fascinating, and I want to be part of it."

"When we tendered to produce the series last summer we argued that we should use all the elements of the Internet alongside the TV programme. I find that I increasingly use the Internet as an entertainment medium to replace my TV viewing - I browse the Web and the newsgroups. I don't use IRC that much. The Web is an astonishing development. There are possibilities for combining the Web and TV into new forms of entertainment."

Is that a threat to his profession, if everyone can make their own multimedia TV programme on their own Web site? He grins. "No. It might change what we, as a TV production company, do. It ceases to be that alienating, one- to-many entertainment and becomes about finding new combinations of TV, publishing and social interaction online.

"Think of the broadcasting companies as lions and all of us as ants. Well, there will still be room for ant colonies - we can all coexist in the same world." Then he turns back to the screen to check to see whether any more e-mail has arrived in the past 10 minutes.

Comments