Media: Can we still make them like we used to?: Factual programming can survive the threat of US-style 'infotainment', argues David Glencross

ONE ANXIETY expressed by some commentators in the past year is that factual programming, news included, is on a downward path towards the triumph of 'infotainment' over information and entertainment.

John Chancellor, of NBC, has written of 'pelvic news'. Neil Postman, the American academic admittedly not renowned for his love or respect for television, says that 'television is at its most trivial, and therefore most dangerous, when its aspirations are high', and that it causes most forms of discussion to become 'shrivelled and absurd'; he believes it has made Americans 'the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world'.

It couldn't possibly be like that in Britain, could it? I am not so sure. Factual programmes still have a considerable presence in peak time across all four (terrestrial) channels, but the mix has changed. There are many more programmes reconstructing crime, vicarious exposure of disasters, and exploitations of people's sex lives.

Interestingly, Channel 4, the statutory showcase of innovation, is the principal standard-bearer of peak-time documentary work in the old tradition, with Dispatches and Cutting Edge. That said, ITV's Network centre is coming up with first-rate Network First documentaries. The last month has seen programmes on black American fighter pilots, children of the Holocaust and on East Timor. That is not a narrow domestic agenda. What I believe the ITV network needs is a little more adventure and risk. An occasional evening dip in the ratings does not spell the end of life as we know it.

David Glencross is chief executive of the Independent Television Commission. This is an extract from his speech last night to the Royal Television Society.

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