On the cheap is hardly cheerful

The joins are beginning to show as TV companies become keener to be meaner, says Janine Gibson

Radio mikes? Autocues? Talkback to presenters on live shows? Dressing rooms? Or, in the case of a satellite channel recently cut off mid-broadcast, electricity? Ha! Luxuries. Welcome to the glamorous showbiz world of cheap telly. Starting with the launch of cable and satellite channels and now made virtuous by Channel 5, super-low-budget programming has become the obsession of modern broadcasting.

The street corners of Soho resound with the boasts of producers who have managed to make a 50-part history of the world with a fiver and a piece of string. Cutting or amortising costs, reinventing the way television is made and embracing new production methods for greater efficiencies are the badges of honour among the previously precious. "How low can we go?" has been asked of many a TV conference over the last three years. There is a peculiar combination of machismo and masochism about the low- cost pioneers.

Cheap telly doesn't have to mean bad telly - and not just in a "so bad that it's compulsive" way. However, recent evidence suggests that the cheapo approach has its downside, especially in places where people are used to better. High-profile shows commissioned on the "low budget is king" principle for terrestrial channels are not pulling in the viewers.

Bazal's Afternoon Live, the ITV afternoon version of This Morning and produced for around pounds 15,000, has been axed, though its commissioner, Paul Corley, ITV's head of factual programmes, told advertisers recently that elements of it would be spun out into their own series later in the year. Another live afternoon magazine produced by gameshow specialist Action Time for Sky One suffered a similar fate earlier this year. Mentorn is currently radically rethinking its Channel 5 daily show Exclusive! for a relaunch later this summer.

Audiences, it seems, just don't buy it that cheap. Pubs around the country resounded last week with the sound of football fans watching the England- Poland game shouting not just "How did he miss that penalty?" but "Why is the sound so bad? What's all that background noise?" and "Why is a racing commentator hosting the show?"

Broadcasters will admit that the attractions of low-budget shows are sometimes misleading. "They look great on the business plan," acknowledges one commissioner. "The independents are in such a cut-throat business; there will always be someone around who says they can do it for less." It can pay off - the vanguard of the inexpensive studio-based live show was This Morning (now, of course, relatively lavish), and Richard and Judy are still going strong and are adored by millions. Nobody minds if Richard breaks his chair on camera occasionally.

Granada capitalised on the success of This Morning with the ambitious launch of its cable and satellite channels, including Granada Good Life, Men and Motoring, Talk TV and High Street. The budgets on these channels are not openly discussed. All cable and satellite channels suffer terribly from lack of resources, and it can make for some exciting times. "I saw a gardening show on satellite the other day," gloats one producer, "where the cameraman quite clearly fell into a flower bed while shooting and they just carried on regardless. It was just the presenter and his mate with a camcorder in the back garden."

That's nothing. "One day before transmission," confesses the producer of a live show living on the edge, "we had to do an emergency run to Ikea, trying to find a table to use on the set - it was our set, this table. We couldn't find one the right height, so we bought a coffee table for pounds 40, spent the rest of the day trying to assemble it and then propped it up with four plastic storage crates. You couldn't tell."

Sets are one of the main problems for the economical producer. Studio- based shows are essentially inexpensive; the bulk of the cost is taken up by making the studio look like someone's living room. This lends atmosphere, lets the presenter be a host and looks grown-up. But, as is all too clear to the viewer, and as one exponent put it, naff sets give a feeling of cheapness. Tim Gardam, Channel 5 controller of news and current affairs, has thought this through and has been pushing his current-affairs shows out of studios for that reason. "If you define your ambition properly, low-budget shows need not look cheap," he says.

Don't spend money on title sequences - that's one of Gardam's tips. His style strongly advocates the "guerrilla journalism" of current-affairs slot What's the Story, which, by sending students from a media college to report on the Manchester airport protests, managed to scoop ITV's World in Action by two weeks - on about a fifth of the cost. "You have to pick your battles," Gardam says. "In news and current affairs, new technology makes a difference - you can be raw, grainy and direct."

But for the most part, "the cheaper, the better" is not a plausible approach - cheap is cheap and looks it. One BBC head of department believes that Channel 5, widely anticipated to shake up industry practice, has actually been good for future protection of budget levels. "It has proved that if you pay peanuts," he said, "the audience notices and turns off."

Big budgets will still be there for the classy, prime-time show. The consensus is that the mid-range shows will be under threat. Documentaries made for around pounds 80,000 (against a top end of up to pounds 200,000) are likely to be squeezed, say broadcasters. The money is still there, but it is likely to be more concentrated. Certain genres - factual, leisure, lifestyle, daytime ("the programmes which fill the schedule" as one commissioner puts it) - are going to feel increasing pressure downwards. "Telly is just more democratic than it used to be," argues a producer. "Anyone with a little technical know-how can make a pilot." Quite possibly. But maybe a little elitism goes a long wayn

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Business Development Manager

£25000 - £27000 per annum + Bonus: Sauce Recruitment: Within your role as Busi...

IT Graduate

£15 - 20k: Guru Careers: We are looking for an eager IT Graduate / Technology ...

Ad Director / Sales Director

£55 - 65k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?