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

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