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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media & Advertising Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national business publishi...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones