Clive James: My Farewell to the Box

For years, he bestrode the airwaves like an intellectual colossus. But now Clive James has forsworn television in favour of the internet. Here he explains the reasons for his conversion
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The Independent Online

On Friday night, after almost a year of preparation, a new website called welcomestranger.com at last started to run, and I got a heady taste of how the Wright brothers must have felt after sunset on their first big day at Kitty Hawk. If they had shouted: "We're on our way to the Moon!" they would have been quite correct. It just would have been bad PR.

When you have flown several yards along the sand dunes at a height of only a few inches, it is unwise to prattle about your upcoming conquest of the solar system. These are small beginnings. Anyone whose computer has a Windows Media Player installed can dial up welcomestranger.com and see a miniature television programme of me talking to Martin Amis for a grand total of 27 minutes. He is the one without socks: a fashion statement. Also to be seen are three-minute samples from forthcoming conversations with Deborah Bull, Bruce Beresford, Peter Porter and Ruby Wax. In every case, these programmes were shot on digital minicams in my living room, which means the decor consists almost entirely of second-hand books. Low budget? You bet. But very relaxed.

Though the 1 per cent of wired-up people who have broadband access will see the stuff perfectly, the vast majority with dial-up modems might be puzzled by the occasional bump and wobble. Even when all the gizmos work, the picture is only about as big as a matchbox. With a general broadband take-up still three years away and full convergence further off than that, welcomestranger.com looks like a pretty small-time version of a broadcasting channel. But when we add another full-length television show next week, and so on through the weeks to come, something unusual will happen. The first show won't go away, and neither will the second, the third or the nth. Anything we put on the site, people will be able to watch any time, from any free country on earth. In cyberspace, there is no scheduling pressure, because there are no schedules. And that's what makes the difference.

In the course of about 30 years, network TV has made me well-off enough to put my retirement money into a stunt like this, and well-known enough to draw attention to it. So it would be churlish to complain about network television's frustrating limitations. Though my literary friends are fond of sympathising with me for my supposed sufferings, I have greatly enjoyed the benefits of being a recognisable media face. But there are two big facts of life about network television that make it hard to put up with once you can see an alternative.

One of the facts of life has always been there. The TV channels pay you all that money up front so that they can do exactly what they want with your work, including throw it away. Earlier this year, when I published two books of essays, some of the critics kindly thought to pay me a compliment by saying that my written work showed how thoroughly I had been wasting my time on television. I never thought that. As a writer-performer, I am very proud of some of the shows I made, especially the Postcard programmes about foreign cities. But those programmes cost a lot to make, so I didn't own them.

One of the reasons I went into independent TV production with the Watchmaker company was to get some control over the rights to those Postcard programmes. Watchmaker was a successful company. But I still never managed to get control of my work. The Postcard programmes were, and still are, shown all over the world except here. In Argentina last year you could see one or another of them screened six times every Friday, and this year three of them, suitably re-voiced, were screened back to back as the headline event of the Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic: some of the audience had seen them often enough to laugh in the right places even when the sound broke down. But those shows are owned by the BBC and ITV, and if they decide never to screen them again in the country where they were manufactured, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. That was the bargain, so there's no point bitching: on network television, they pay you not to complain if the best work you can do disappears from the screen straight after it is shown.

The other fact of life about network TV was not there from the beginning, but by now looms too large to blink away. It's the increasing likelihood that your best work will disappear from the screen before it is shown. The TV networks, ITV included, were essentially public service institutions until Mrs Thatcher removed the quality requirements from the ITV franchise bids. After that, ITV headed towards the widest possible audience at all times of night and day, with the BBC duly following because industry wisdom decreed that it had to maintain its share to justify the licence fee. Here again, good manners demand that I don't bite the hand that fed me. Though I have been quoted as saying that British TV has ruined itself by dumbing down, I never said so in public. In private I might have called some of the channel controllers demented, but I never thought they were stupid. Would that it were true.

For a consistent, deliberate policy of dumbing down, the networks would have to appoint dumb executives. Alas, the current crop of executives are the reverse of dumb. They are so media-wise that they speak a language the old-style broadcasting grandees would scarcely understand. Concealed within that language, however, is a new set of imperatives that the old-style broadcasting grandees wouldn't even recognise. The first imperative is not to put anything on the screen that will puzzle even a small proportion of the widest possible audience.

It got to the point where there were guests I couldn't get on my own show because my own colleagues thought the channel controllers would be worried that not enough of the audience would recognise the guests' names. I wanted to talk to people who weren't necessarily star billing, but the controllers thought that the billing was everything, and they were right. (If you talk to Geri Halliwell on air, the viewing figures really do go up by a million people: don't knock it until you've tried it.) Gradually but inexorably over the last few years, the kind of television I most wanted to do was pushed to the margins of the schedules.

When's the only time you play a crooked wheel? When it's the only wheel in town. To put it more grandly, you don't buck a historical tendency unless there's an alternative. For a long while I saw no exit from the grind of making programmes I cared less and less about so as to get something I did care about on the air more and more rarely. But all the time I was slogging through the ratings jungle, the alternative was taking shape. When the Berlin Wall went down, the World Wide Web went up. Out of a cafeteria conference at CERN came our salvation. Four years ago, straight after the first webcast, I could already see the way out. Clearly nothing would stop the technology: nothing ever had.

Suddenly there was the glittering prospect of making an end run through cyberspace to outflank the established broadcasting system by doing everything it no longer feels like doing. You have to bet there will be an audience that feels like watching. But if the bet turns out to be wrong, the ramshackle new contraption will just tilt over on to one wing and grind to a halt. Apart from the egg on my face, all I'll get will be a few bruises. If I'm right, though, this thing could go a long way.

At the moment we are doing without any large amount of investment money, and that's the way we want to keep it. Our basic sites, headed by aussieinlondon.com, pay for themselves and provide the technical capacity for the welcomestranger media arm: a large name for a couple of minicams in a canvas bag and a set of lights stashed in my guest bathroom. But if you mean business about an ideal, you have to watch the bottom line, and I think anyone interested in media finance would be impressed by the way some hard heads in the off-network broadcasting world are already flexing their eyebrows over what we're up to.

Sky Artsworld was the first to notice that our little digicam programmes were getting progressively closer to broadcast quality, so they leased a set of six: and there's our costs covered, because the costs are low. We are currently putting the tiny surplus into another set of six. For the foreseeable future, a sell-on to digital, cable or even terrestrial channels could be very helpful. My dreamed-of, world-wide, super-smart W3 audience might take a while to put together, and for all we know now, if 50 people log on at the same instant the whole thing might burst into flames. But the shows are so suave that I can't believe some high-tab advertisers and sponsors won't want to get their discreet logos up there near the masthead.

It's the suaveness, however, that bowls me over, not the dollar signs. Already, on my library couch (the show is called Talking in the Library), I have coaxed some of the brightest people I know into speaking their minds with a freedom they would never contemplate in an ordinary television studio. Ruby Wax would, because she would give you everything she's got even if you were both on the north face of the Eiger. But Julian Barnes, who did a show for us last week, has to be lulled with a promise of relative normality. We're editing his show now, and it's platinum.

At the moment, our post-production capacity is the limiting factor. Our technical people can build an editing suite out of stuff they buy over the counter, but they can't clone themselves. We could shoot a programme every day but we can't edit more than one a week until we start to expand, and in my role as non-executive chairman of Welcome Stranger I put a lot of emphasis on the principle that you should never build on a promise, only on results. After all, we're out to make this thing work on the Web. If my first loyalty was to the television companies, I'd be out there wearing a wig by now.

When I say that money isn't the object, my young CEO Simon Larcey tries to remind me that his BMW doesn't run on air. He's right, of course: but even before the big shake-out I never thought that the dot.com boom had suspended the law of gravity. I gave Welcome Stranger its name. I named it for an idea: a gathering place for creative people looking for a home, and I honestly long to see the day when I am crowded out of my own creation by young people with ideas of their own. But I also named Welcome Stranger after the biggest gold nugget ever discovered. It happened on the Victorian goldfields in 1869. It showed up in the rut left by a cartwheel. Nobody was expecting to see it, but long before they finished digging it out they all knew what it was.

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