Let's kill Top of the Pops
The BBC has relaunched its flagship music programme - again. What a waste of time, says the former TotP chief Trevor Dann
Tuesday 02 December 2003
Forty years old in January, Top of the Pops is the Tottenham Hotspur of music television. Each generation throws up its classic performers - Greaves, Gascoigne, Klinsmann for Spurs; Hendrix, The Faces, the Spice Girls for TotP - and yet every few years, a decreasing audience forces each institution into a relaunch. So, in comes a new management team, and there follows a brief flurry of interest. But nothing can disguise the inexorable decline of both.
On the evidence of last Friday's much-heralded All New Top of the Pops, rigor mortis has already set in. Instead of throwing money at the moribund format, the BBC should listen to what the audience figures are telling it. Pop fans can access their favourite music 24/7 on more than 20 music-TV channels. They can see the top bands on everything from Blue Peter to GMTV. There is just no need for a half-hour pop show in prime time.
If there were a demand, it certainly wouldn't be for this unfocused concoction, which looks like the heated-up remains of The Oxford Road Show from the mid-Eighties blended with some half-baked revenue-generating quizzes.
"All new"? Well, not the logo, which reminds me of that of Vertigo Records in the 1970s. And not the set, which is as cool and stylish as Fame Academy's. What is new is a complete disregard for what is in the charts. In the 60-minute launch edition, there was just one song from the Top 40. It either is a chart show or it isn't. Don't ask the new presenter, Tim Kash, to sell the authority of the Official Chart with the fervour of a 19th-century missionary, and then ignore it altogether.
Where were Girls Aloud, Alex Parks, Busted, Britney Spears and the Pet Shop Boys, all of whom are in the Top 10? Why was Kylie Minogue allowed to plug an album track instead of singing her current single? And who decided to devote three minutes to Craig David's musings on South African politics?
The answer in all cases is: the record companies. They gave up on the TotP format long ago, in despair at BBC TV's commitment to a weekly show based on last week's chart. In the show's heyday, artists clamoured to be on TotP to ensure that their single rose from No 13 to No 7. Now that singles are released to radio stations as many as eight weeks before they appear in the shops, the singles chart doesn't sell records. So, the record industry wants TV shows to broadcast "exclusives", "future hits" and album tracks. And BBC1 has meekly agreed to all that free advertising.
The new show made much of its being "live", but TotP has often been broadcast as it happens. And, apart from a couple of dodgy camera cuts that would have been repaired in editing, how could we tell? The performances by Nelly and Elton John were pre-recorded. Only Will Young and Westlife sang live in the studio - to backing-tapes.
The new executive producer, Andi Peters, is the latest in a long line of would-be saviours of TotP. In the Eighties, Michael Hurll ruled the show like a medieval monarch. In the early Nineties, it was Ric Blaxill, poached from Radio 1 by Jim Moir, who was then head of entertainment at BBC TV. Unlike some of his predecessors, Blaxill was more interested in music than in television, and he revitalised the show by pensioning off some of the elderly presenters and booking more young acts.
But the BBC1 schedulers pulled the rug from under him by moving the show from its traditional Thursday slot to Friday at 7.30pm, against Coronation Street. The weekly audience halved overnight from nine million to less than five million. And it has been going down ever since.
In my time we tried to make the show more cool and credible. I hired Chris Cowey (formerly of The Tube and The White Room) to produce and direct, and, for a while, the figures started to edge back up.
But perhaps I should have seen that I was fighting a losing battle: TotP2, the archive show on BBC2, began to attract more viewers, and the biggest acts were already shunning Top of the Pops. They preferred to appear on the National Lottery show.
Trevor Dann was executive producer of 'Top of the Pops', 1996-2000
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