Dominic Crossley-Holland (not) on Broadcasting
A salutary tale about the friend who just got rid of her TV
Monday 30 October 2006
There was I all set to write about the gripping world of product placement on TV, which is fast headed to a screen very near you. The EU is debating it now and, if it allows it, the potential is mind-boggling; forget ads or sponsorship bumpers - think Parky prominently clasping a pack of Viagra as he interviews Joan Bakewell, or The Rovers Return permanently featuring a Carlsberg happy hour. Just as I faced the keyboard to bring you the inside track on this important but, let's face it, fairly dry subject, salvation came in the form of a friend who told me she's decided to chuck out her television.
Clare is 28 and, apart from being a journalist, seems quite normal. So what on earth provoked her to bin her box? Her answer - she says she found herself drifting into watching so much mindless trash that she needed to do something radical. Now she exercises far more proactive choice, downloading those programmes she can, watching more DVDs and saving £130 plus on the licence fee. Her living room is no longer dominated by a big box and she spends the hours she isn't now slumped in front of the box reading, learning the guitar and talking to friends. It's all fairly dispiriting for a TV producer, and worse still for advertisers for whom she's probably a target.
Clare's action struck a bit of a chord with me, probably because my last column on the networks' battle for Saturday-night supremacy entailed me watching such an unhealthy amount of mindless Saturday night TV. And I do seem to keep meeting people who say they are getting rid of their TV, junking multi-channel, or just won't bother to go digital. The final straw was the colleague who, after reading the last column, shouted across the office, "God you lead such an interesting life Dominic, you really must get out more".
So, this week this column is hereby renamed "Not On Broadcasting", because I'm amazed to see the latest figures for those people who, like Clare, are switching off traditional TV, or watch so little that they seem to live horribly balanced and unimaginably sane lives. I mean, how on Earth do you navigate most newspapers without this year's vital, defining, cultural reference points like Big Brother's Nikki or Sophie Anderton on Love Island?
As a nation we still watch a staggering average of 25 and half hours of TV each week and listen to around 20 hours of radio, our appetites almost unchanged from four years ago, according to the media regulator Ofcom. Unsurprisingly the most marked change is in the decline of TV viewing among 16-24 year olds. They watch an average of seven hours less TV a week than the rest of us.
Clearly, the younger we are the more likely we are to spend longer on the internet, listening to our iPods or downloading clips on our mobiles, but measurements of all this sort of activity are hazy. A highly unscientific survey of my sister Ellie (20) and her four housemates suggests that the girls prefer renting films on DVD to watch together, although they would probably watch more TV if they could afford Sky's full line-up of channels. They universally feel that American TV is better and love shows like Lost, Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives. The box-set of Friends is still very popular too.
A far clearer picture is available of the so-called "lighter" viewers who watch a sane amount of TV and who broadcasting execs just love to chase. A third of all adults watched TV for just over one hour a day this September, compared to the "heavy" brigade who goggled at the box for over six hours a day. Lighter viewers apparently tend to be either young, upmarket or male (or a combination of the three) and like music programmes, BBC4, More4, movies and sport.
At the far end of the spectrum are the refuseniks who spurn TV altogether, or at least claim to. Pinning down hard facts about this group is about as easy as finding something you actively want to watch when you've finally got time to sit in front of the TV, ie next to impossible. BARB, which provides the industry with audience data, estimates 600,000 households don't have TV, accounting for almost one-and-a-half million of us. I put that to the very helpful people at TV Licensing who say they are still catching over 375,000 people a year without licences (the top excuse is still "my dog ate my licence") but, strangely, they have no idea how many people actually don't own or want a TV.
One question raised by many is to what extent the ranks of those without will be swelled by people jettisoning their TVs rather than switching to digital, or those simply left behind when analogue finally begins to disappear, from 2008. In particular, there's real anxiety expressed by Age Concern and others about how some elderly people will pay for the switchover, with the Government pledging some assistance for the most vulnerable over-75-year-olds.
Appropriately enough, my final call was to an organisation called White Dot, which claims to be part of an international campaign against TV and runs something called TV Turnoff week. It promotes a universal remote control that boasts a single function: it can switch any TV anywhere off; so if you go to a foreign restaurant and don't like the fact that England are losing again you can take anonymous and unilateral action from the comfort of your seat.
But they'd obviously pressed their own "off" button, as it was impossible to raise them. All of which probably tells you all you need, or ever want to know, about the hours we devote to our favourite national pastime.
No expense claims spared: Your chance to be Paxo'd
You'll never catch me saying that public-service broadcasting should be a charity case, but I can reveal what my collaborators and I have modestly dubbed The Ultimate News Quiz, and which will be chaired by Jeremy Paxman, with Kay Burley, Mark Austin, Kirsty Young, Ed Stourton and many other luminaries of the news world. I'm not sure what the collective noun for a group of newshounds, should be - perhaps a "package" or "expense" - anyway, they'll all be there.
Last time we organised a news quiz we asked Alastair Campbell to be the quizmaster, and I don't think it would be spinning in any way to report that he rather enjoyed getting his own back on political editors like Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson, and Andrew Marr. In fact he positively punished them with zeal - all strictly in the name of charity, you understand. Edwina Currie was cast as our scorekeeper, leading to unseemly but wholly justified accusations of bias.
So this time round will Jeremy Paxman adopt the stern but understanding University Challenge approach, or opt for more of a Newsnight grilling? The only subtle hint that he's prepared to drop is to observe that, "never before in the field of human quizzing have so many bigheads pretended to know all the answers".
It should be a lively night, providing, of course, that there's no real news, as the event's rather more diplomatic organiser Martha Kearney points out. "It's great that all these top news people are willing to put their knowledge to the test... I only hope there isn't a massive story on the night."
If you are interested in being Paxo-ed, The Ultimate News Quiz is on 19 January at Bloomberg's HQ in the City of London. Seats next to some of Britain's most famous bigheads are available at www. theultimatenewsquiz.com.
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