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