In TV's battle of ideas, the viewer is the loser

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There used to be a joke that all Australian soap operas were made in the same building in downtown Sydney so that the three actors who seemed to star in everything from The Sullivans to Country Practice could run from studio to studio while changing costumes.

It now appears that British television is no better off for ideas than Seventies Australia was for soap stars.

ITV has announced that it is planning a major drama about the lives of ambulance drivers. This, it claims, will be nothing like Casualty. Oh no, nothing like it. The BBC's drama is about ambulance drivers and nurses. ITV's drama is just about ambulance drivers. So it is only half like Casualty. The bandage-swaddled extras in ITV's show will no doubt just be dropped off at the doors of casualty departments so viewers don't get confused.

This comes hard on the heels of the Neighbours at War/Neighbours from Hell debacle two weeks ago when both the BBC and ITV "real people" documentary units reached the inevitable point where everybody in the country has been filmed for a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

There is more deja vu programming like this to come because ITV has poached the man who made Driving School and Airport for the BBC - indeed ITV is planning a programme with the original title of Airline. Which, rather like the Casualty rip-off, will no doubt stop filming when planes get to airport departure gates so no one can claim it is derivative.

Keeping with the transport theme, there is presumably an ITV documentary planned which will follow people in taxis getting taken to the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, but will then leave them as they get to the door.

If the "real people" documentary trend is not stopped soon then Andy Warhol's "famous for 15 minutes" prediction will prove to have been woefully optimistic: we shall all end up with our own 15-part series.

And when the one British television idea gets a little threadbare at the elbows there is of course other people's ideas to nick: ITV (oh dear, them again) also announced this week its own version of Friends, starring Helen Baxendale - who was once in Cardiac Arrest, a medical drama that had very few ambulances in it.

This sit-com, Cold Feet, will be about six yuppie friends in Manchester. To be fair to ITV this will probably be nothing like Friends in so far as Friends is funny. An idea which ITV sit-coms never, ever, try to steal.

Even on the cutting edge of television, things are no better. BBC 2 announced this week that they would be investing in more themed nights - one for later this year devoted to the career of Michael Caine, and one in April to mark Spike Milligan's 80th birthday.

This is all very nice for fans of Michael Caine and Spike Milligan, but themed nights have rather overstayed their welcome. When Channel 4developed them as a wheeze to cover up acres of repeats, you could only admire their chutzpah. But now that everyone is at it, it is only a matter of time before we get a night devoted to ambulances driven by Australian actors.