Who are you calling dumb, stupid?

The 'dumbing-down police' have been too quick to write off television, writes Tim Gardam, Director of Programmes at Channel 4

For me, there was a moment, some time in the early Nineties, when people's thinking about the world changed. We were suddenly in a world where limits to individual experience seemed infinitely more negotiable. The Gulf war was the last throw of the old world; within a few months, Thatcher, Bush, Gorbachev - figures who defined their decade - disappeared, and the new world, invented while they were there, no longer registered public events in the same way.

For me, there was a moment, some time in the early Nineties, when people's thinking about the world changed. We were suddenly in a world where limits to individual experience seemed infinitely more negotiable. The Gulf war was the last throw of the old world; within a few months, Thatcher, Bush, Gorbachev - figures who defined their decade - disappeared, and the new world, invented while they were there, no longer registered public events in the same way.

Today, politics and public affairs obviously still are fought out on television; but watching an amusing documentary on Channel 4 recently, The Confessions of a Spin Doctor with Charlie Whelan, I was struck again by how self-enclosed and diminished the world of politics now seems to a society easily distracted by all the other choices around.

What has come in its place is today. And, for some, today is an uncomfortable place. We are going through a time of such fundamental change that the language in which we try to define what is socially and culturally significant borders on confusion. And the reaction is too often to descend to the name-calling of the dumbing-down debate.

In this debate, modern television stands condemned: for the confessional culture of the talk show, the strutting hedonism of the popular documentary, the repetitive domesticity of aspirational leisure programmes. All this is taken as evidence of an intellectually debased and blanded out common culture, pandered to by an effete ruling media class that has lost its sense of editorial conviction.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth here. But "dumbing down" is a phrase I dislike, because it seeks to close down argument and throttle the new, rather than to open up complex questions as to what is shifting in our cultural values.

It is not surprising that the dumbing-down argument is reaching its height as television reaches the digital crossroads. On the one hand, broadcasters promise an explosion of individual choice that turns television from a passive collective experience into something more dynamic and personal. On the other hand, the critical perception of TV is of programmes that are losing any sense of individual signature, and homogenise around a sterile second-guessing of the market.

The best television offers us a world that is at first sight familiar, but makes us realise how different and surprising, and sometimes just plain ludicrous, it really is. My problem with the dumbing-down police is that they seem to be driven by a cultural puritanism. They assume that serious and intellectually ambitious television is somehow threatened by the easily approachable, the emotionally compelling and the unself-consciously outrageous.

Now, of course some programmes are no good. I do not accept the cultural relativism that says that good and bad are merely issues to be determined by the market.

But I do worry that this approach to public service broadcasting associates ambitious programmes with a cultural pessimism - setting them against the energy of popular culture. I believe good television has at its heart a generosity of spirit, a belief that ordinary life is not ordinary, that people should be allowed an unself-conscious relish in what they enjoy.

Good television is every bit as interested in the exuberant and the trivial as it is in the discerning and the demanding. Only by engaging in the whole can it untangle the strands of our emerging culture, and give us a clue to the kind of society we are becoming.

But the greatest challenge posed by this world of accelerating cultural change has been to contemporary documentary. In the early Nineties, Channel 4, along with other terrestrial broadcasters, was slow to notice the changes I have described. Serious documentary was more interested in charting the decline of the old, getting access to crumbling institutions, or seeking out victims of the modern world. It missed the unself-conscious energy and hedonism of the new post-Cold-War generation. So it was Sky who uncovered Ibiza.

We have allowed contemporary documentary to divide into two cultures, the serious and mature, and the young and tabloid. Docusoaps have ended up making a confection of individual experience. They responded to a fascination for the personal but have often ended up stereotyping people rather than exploring their lives.

Documentary has succeeded where it has left behind the easily known. The Valley was shot in Kosovo by Dan Reed before the world knew where Kosovo was, Kim Longinotto's Divorce Iranian Style showed us the familiarity of people in a world we would never enter ourselves. Molly Dineen's Geri Halliwell documentary broke through the glaze of celebrity and fame. Interestingly, all these were 90-minute programmes run at 9pm.

The most remarkable documentary on Channel 4 this year has been Penny Woolcock's Tina Goes Shopping, where she directed a Leeds housing estate to re-enact the story of their lives. Its deliberate collision of real and imagined worlds cut through the deadeningly literal debate about what truth is in documentary. This programme seemed to me to be at the frontier of documentary now. In an age where virtual reality games are making concrete our imaginings, we should be trying to record the life that is lived in people's heads in the midst of their otherwise apparently unremarkable days.

We are in greatest danger if we fear that the popular culture that is emerging through the technological revolution is somehow threatening to our values. That would make the mistake of marooning us in the battlegrounds of the Eighties and the early Nineties, when the battle has moved on.

Of one thing I am convinced. Channel 4 will have to change in order to remain the same. The greatest defeat would be for a channel committed to innovation and creative thinking to fail in its imagination when thinking through what it needs to do differently in a world unrecognisable from the one into which it was launched.

We are entering a world where Channel 4 will offer a lot more than a single channel on a TV set, though the values of the core channel will be embedded in all its new adventures, as Film 4 has shown.

We need to think through how to develop the right joint ventures with producers, to invest long term in the brightest talent. The successors to Channel 4's first wave of producers in the early Eighties are today working online. Channel 4, as it evolves beyond being a single channel, must be the place where on screen and online imagination meet, with websites not seen as separate, but programme and website are conceived of as an imaginative whole.

 

The writer is director of programmes at Channel 4. He will speak on this subject tonight at the Royal Television Society

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?