Rob Brown column

A nation of happy zappers, says Mr Major. But when it comes to TV channels , more might well mean worse. Look at America ...

"Choice and opportunity are turning Britain into the best place in the world in which to live. If you drive from one side of London to the other you can tune into 27 radio stations. Soon you will be able to receive 200 television channels."

A snippet from John Major's personal manifesto, published on the op-ed page of The Times last Wednesday.

The outgoing PM is to be congratulated for managing to mention the media in the course of this marathon election campaign without, for once, cursing it. It is a lamentable fact that, despite being crucial to the cultural health of the nation and a burgeoning sector of our post-industrial economy, broadcasting and the press barely feature in any of the three major parties' manifestos.

But, Mr Major's vision of Britain as a nation of happy zappers is one that many others find hard to share. To begin with, Honest John is being slightly misleading - or perhaps he has been misled - in his suggestion that we shall soon have a choice of 200 television "channels".

As any of Rupert Murdoch's minions will happily confirm, a hefty chunk of the extra broadcasting spectrum delivered by digital satellite will be used to transmit one-off, pay-per-view events and near video-on-demand services.

You don't need a calculator to realise that 10 films with 10 different start-up times would account for precisely half of these 200 "channels".

This prospect may be welcomed by couch potatoes who struggle to roll themselves down to their local video store, but surely no one believes it is a cause for national celebration - or a reason to vote Conservative.

Even if the other 100 channels delivered by digital satellite are TV channels in the traditional sense, the chances are that in a few years' time we won't be celebrating a new cornucopia of choice, but feeling as culturally deprived as any discerning zapper across the Atlantic. And before any dimwit accuses me of being anti-American, let me draw your attention to what the American travel writer Bill Bryson had to say recently in the Mail on Sunday about "the awfulness, the jaw-slackening direness of American TV".

Bryson, who lived in Britain for 20 years, pointed out that he gets about 50 channels back in his American abode, and it is possible on some systems to get up to 200. "So you think at first you are going to be spoiled for choice, but you gradually realise that the idea of TV here is simply to fill up the air with any old sludge."

But that could never happen in this country, could it? We'd all just switch off the sludge or switch over to the BBC or ITV to lap some first- rate British drama such as Cracker or Pride and Prejudice, wouldn't we?

We might ... if such wholesome home-grown fare were still on the menu. But there is no guarantee that the high quality that has distinguished British television up to now will be preserved in the multi-channel universe. Quality drama costs money, and the grave danger for ITV in particular is that, as channels proliferate and audiences fragment, it simply won't generate sufficient revenue to invest in high-calibre programmes.

Outside America, BBC1 and ITV have been unusual (certainly in the English- speaking world) in the way they have been able to operate without giving over swathes of their peak-time schedules to foreign acquisitions or international co-productions.

But the ecology of British broadcasting is fragile and there is a grave danger that its "singularity" could be severely diluted. That phrase has been invoked by David Liddiment, Granada UK's head of broadcasting, who warns that television will cease to be important in British life if its quality deteriorates.

There are already alarming signs that this is beginning to happen. We have just seen the sad spectacle of Britain's biggest commercial channel competing ferociously with its newest rival to shower a hefty slice of their programming budgets on Hollywood studios. Channel 5 splashed out pounds 88m - almost as much as its entire first-year programming budget - for two years' worth of Warner Bros productions, whilst ITV beat off both C5 and the BBC to clinch a multi-million-pound deal with Universal Studios.

Channel 5's programming supremo Dawn Airey tells us that this deal will not detract from its domestic programming. But she cannot deny that the main impact of the fifth terrestrial so far has been galloping inflation in the price of American imports. C5 signalled its aggression in the programme acquisition market early on when it forced Channel 4 massively to increase its payment for the top American TV shows, ER and Friends. As a rival gleefully put it last week, it was "hoist by its own petard" when ITV walked away from the bidding with Warner Bros having forced the price up for its fledgling competitor.

But, as ITV's network director, Marcus Plantin, was forced to acknowledge, the only real gainers were the Hollywood studios. "They have never had it so good," he admitted.

And the situation is sure to get better and better for the audio-visual exporters of southern California, as Panglossian optimists on this side of the pond spout nonsense about how "choice and opportunity are turning Britain into the best country in the world in which to live"n

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