Raymond Snoddy on broadcasting
British television isn't in terminal decline – get recording and see
Monday 05 November 2007
As guests left last week's spectacular party to mark Channel 4's 25th anniversary there was a goody bag for everyone. Inside was a specially struck coin with the numeral 4 on one side and Channel 4 headquarters on the other. The legend read: "Invenite orbem XXV anni televisionis filmique terram rumpentis".
A critic might say how appropriate a symbol – a very shiny exterior covering heavy base metal complete with a pompous deployment of Latin. Of course, knowing Channel 4 it was probably a case of post-modern, ironic Latin. It was nonetheless an evening where half the elite of British broadcasting seemed to be on parade – those who weren't celebrating simultaneously the 50th anniversary of the Today programme across London at the Royal Festival Hall.
It is also as good a moment as any to pause briefly and ponder the state of British broadcasting. First what did the party guests miss on Channel 4 that evening by tackling all that free champagne instead? Apart from the permanent furniture there was Property Ladder, where greed is never far from the surface, Gordon "Bleep" Ramsay with his Kitchen Nightmares and Brat Camp featuring a foul-mouthed daughter and her mother at an Arizona desert therapy camp.
Then as the last of the champagne was being mopped up there was Britain's Deadliest Addictions – a rather spurious if compelling "competition" complete with real patients to find out whether it is easier to come off booze, prescription drugs or the real stuff, crack cocaine. With the help of a PVR, the party-goers could, across the other terrestrial channels, have also have taken in Spooks, an edition of Imagine devoted to Bollywood, Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure and Tutankhamun – Secrets of the Boy King.
Perhaps the offerings across the schedules of the main channels don't amount to high culture in the traditional sense but they do provide a decent diversity on top of the current affairs available from Channel 4 News, Newsnight and all the regular bulletins.
Yet grumbles that there is "nothing to watch on television" seem to be rising in volume just as the choice of channels continues to expand. Such arguments took an extreme form at a Battle of Ideas debate last weekend on the theme "Whatever Happened to Serious Television?" The speakers and audience seemed to be queuing up to bemoan the death of heavyweight content on British television. The charge sheet included: British television culture had virtually collapsed and quality long-running series were now coming out of America in the shape of The West Wing and The Sopranos.
Populism, audience participation and celebrity is infecting everything including news. Instead of challenging contemporary drama we have 19th-century "chocolate box" adaptations by Andrew Davies. The BBC Six O'Clock News has lost its way and concentrates on a popular, domestic agenda – not a patch on Channel 4 News.
And then there is Big Brother.
The truth is that multi-channel television has changed the nature of the television culture for ever and on-demand internet broadcasting will intensify the pressure even more. The passive audience has turned into more active citizens and even if they tend sometimes to make the "wrong" choices by going for entertainment rather than "seriousness", I believe that, overall, it is a healthy development. Channel controllers are just going to have to cope. The days when you can broadcast worthy programmes down to the masses are over.
The Six O'Clock News is designed to attract a different audience from the Ten O'Clock News and it cannot be a version of the Channel 4 News, which is realistically aimed at an audience of about 1 million. Those who don't like the more limited agenda of the Six can move to the excellent BBC News on Radio 4. The BBC quite properly has to find a way of reaching as many licence payers as possible with its news and if that upsets some of the intelligentsia, tough.
As for drama it would indeed be nice to have more gritty contemporary dramas that seek to define the age we live in. But to call Bleak House chocolate box television is simply laughable.
As for Big Brother, a lot of people like it and a high proportion of the output is also legal. From its earliest days Channel 4 has always involved compromises. Back then, cheap American imports paid for the more controversial and worthy programmes.
Now Big Brother pays for Channel 4 News, Dispatches and Unreported World. Those who argue that British television has entered a period of terminal decline should either get a life or more practically a personal video recorder. Then you can have 40 hours of quality television just waiting for a viewing slot, including if you want, regular operas from the Metropolitan in New York from the Sky Arts channel. Is that serious enough?
Meanwhile, the Channel 4 25th commemoration coin should be treasured – at least until the end of the month.
Oh joy, the bong's back
There is at least one man who is totally overjoyed at the return of News at Ten – yet again. He's Sir David Nicholas, the former editor, chief executive and chairman of ITN. Sir David never totally gave up the faith that some day the bulletin he created would return to its rightful place.
If you were to merely suggest that in the new, harsher world of television that creating a 90-minute run from 9pm for drama or films was not such a bad idea after all, then you could be sure the letter from Sir David would not be far away. During one of the brief periods when News at Ten was temporarily back, supporters of the "heresy" of showing drama at 10pm received in the post miniature pork pies. The attached note from Sir David read: "Time to eat humble pie!"
When the story of the latest great return was about to break last month, ITN's David Mannion called Sir David to give him the news. Mannion was especially chipper because he had just broadcast an exclusive interview with one of the Russian pilots who have been buzzing the UK. But Sir David rebuked him for not having led with the story.
Is Michael Grade's decision to recall News at Ten, complete – at least initially – with Sir Trevor McDonald, a crude attempt to curry favour with the regulators? Hardly. It looks like a belated attempt to reverse a mistake that has allowed the BBC to run riot with their Ten O'Clock News. It probably also makes commercial sense as the move has the support of the ITV drama department, who are fed up with stretching products artificially to feature-film length.
Whether Mannion can manage to claw back the huge BBC lead at 10pm after the Beeb was given seven uncontested years to occupy the territory, is quite another matter.
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