The light's on but nobody's home

Times have changed since daytime TV meant Play School and the testcard. But why should licence-fee payers bankroll its mind-numbing replacement?

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, television was something you watched in the evenings; by day, it barely existed. I remember from my own childhood, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the desolation of daytime television: in the mornings came
Play School, schools programmes and, if you were lucky, an occasional documentary about Expo 67; in the afternoons,
Watch with Mother followed by a pot-pourri of Welsh comedy programmes and horse-racing which lasted until tea-time, when children's programmes started in earnest. There were days when, off school sick, you would end up staring at the Madonna of the testcard, the little girl with the stuffed clown and the blackboard.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, television was something you watched in the evenings; by day, it barely existed. I remember from my own childhood, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the desolation of daytime television: in the mornings came Play School, schools programmes and, if you were lucky, an occasional documentary about Expo 67; in the afternoons, Watch with Mother followed by a pot-pourri of Welsh comedy programmes and horse-racing which lasted until tea-time, when children's programmes started in earnest. There were days when, off school sick, you would end up staring at the Madonna of the testcard, the little girl with the stuffed clown and the blackboard.

Things really started to change with the arrival of breakfast television. Once the idea of TV first thing in the morning was accepted, it was only a matter of time before the broadcasters started to fill in the gaps, with a mixture of sofas and soaps - lightweight chat with Anne and Nick or Richard and Judy, Neighbours, Home and Away, Take the High Road... So that today, there are no less than five terrestrial channels broadcasting all day long. And it's all dreadful.

Well, to be scrupulous, not quite all. There are reruns of Bewitched on Channel 4 and Bilko on BBC2, and Channel 4 broadcasts many films of interest, especially if your interest is in post-war British comedy or the oeuvres of Joseph H Lewis ( Terror in a Texas Town) and Budd Boetticher ( The Tall T). Also, there are a couple of perfectly decent current affairs programmes tucked away around lunchtime - Working Lunch on BBC2, which has a jaunty, no-nonsense approach to business and consumer affairs, and Channel 4's political news slot Powerhouse. But otherwise, it's tosh.

If this seems like too general a proposition, let me assure you that I know what I am talking about: as somebody who works from home, I end up seeing - "watching" would be too strong a word - rather too much daytime TV, and marvelling at how the lowest common denominators of peak time output can always be pushed that little bit lower: cheaper DIY programmes ( House Invaders, Garden Invaders, House Calls, Big Strong Boys - the permutations are as limitless as they are hard to distinguish), tackier cookery programmes ( Ready Steady Cook, Can't Cook Won't Cook), stupider quizzes ( 100 Per Cent, Wipeout, Pass the Buck, Supermarket Sweep). Quizzes used to be about knowing stuff. Now, more and more, the assumption is that the contestant knows nothing, that it is essentially a gamble on a multiple choice. On an edition of Channel 5's 100 Per Cent a couple of weeks ago, three contestants were asked which city in the Bible was home to Abraham, and given a choice between Ur, Umm and Dunno: they all plumped for Umm.

There are the confessional chat-shows and the heated debates, two forms that melt into one another: Kilroy, Trisha, Esther from over here, Oprah, Leeza, Roseanne and Jerry from America. The form suffered a setback last year after l'affaire Vanessa, when it emerged that the same guests appear repeatedly on different shows with different problems; but since credibility was never a large part of the programme's appeal it has made little difference. Next to this naked emotional porn, shows like BBC1's City Hospital and A Family of My Own are a kind of underwear-catalogue, balancing heartstring-tugging with social conscience.

Elsewhere, the daytime viewer can look forward to finally finding a use for Sandi Toksvig on the new, revamped Call My Bluff; to watching paint dry on Channel 4's Watercolour Challenge; to reruns of Bergerac, Quincy, Ironside or Diagnosis Murder on BBC1. You may not have heard of Diagnosis Murder, which stars Dick Van Dyke as a police doctor: that is because none of the channels considered it worth buying for peaktime viewing. There was a time when the awfulness of daytime television attracted a species of ironic, so-bad-it's-good approval - Supermarket Sweep, still going on ITV, made a star out of Dale Winton. But the joke has gone on too long now. We have to ask: what is the point of daytime television?

For ITV or Channel 5 the answer is plain: the point is that you can sell advertising space and make money, and that is what they do. For the BBC, things are less clearcut. Jane Lush, head of daytime at the BBC, is understandably nettled by the question: she says that you might as well ask what is the point of any television (believe me, I frequently do), that there is no essential difference between what is on in the daytime and what is on in the evenings. She complains about a lack of respect for her audience: listening to the radio is all right, but "The assumption seems to be that if you watch television during the day you're somehow, you know..." Yes, I think we do know: Lush's viewers are unemployed, or they're old, or they're students, or they're teenage mothers cooped up in high-rises, and they don't care what they watch. Those are the stereotypes and of course they're unfair: there are people for whom television is a lifeline.

But I find it hard to see that it is performing any service to give them an inferior version of the programmes put out in the evenings. This is where Lush and I part company, because she thinks her output is very strong. In support of this she cites statistics which show that in recent months the BBC has, for the first time ever, been clawing audience-share from ITV in the daytime, and even overtaking it (though This Morning with Richard and Judy still bestrides the morning schedules like a comfy colossus). She also points out that her first-ever drama commission, the daily GP saga Doctors, is going to be repeated at peaktime over the summer; whether this proves anything other than the BBC's desperation over the summer is open to doubt.

My view is that BBC1's daytime schedule whips Channel 5 and just about has the edge on ITV, even though on a technical level it is impossible to withhold admiration for Richard and Judy's casual unflappability. But the difference, and the advantage to the viewing public, is marginal: so why should a public service broadcaster be spending large amounts of money to fill time with a marginally superior brand of mediocrity? Surely it would be better spent on peaktime viewing, pumping it into drama, so that BBC1 doesn't have to show repeats of a medical soap that makes Holby City look like Middlemarch; indeed, so that BBC1 doesn't have to show Holby City.

These days, the BBC is always having to fend off criticism that it is over-extending itself, and using its subsidised clout to the detriment of commercial players - on the web, on radio, on digital TV. As far as web and radio go, the arguments are stymied by the sheer quality of the BBC's output and the failure of the commercial sector to match it. As for digital TV - well, as Christopher Bland has said, perhaps they went early, but that's preparing for the future and there is a point to it. But unless they're prepared to pump far more investment into it, daytime TV is one area they really should think about getting out of.

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