Is the telly going down the tube?: The golden age of television is over, people complain, fondly remembering the past. But when Tim Kelsey looked back at Saturday nights in the autumns of 1972 and 1982 he found little has changed in 20 years

THE NEW autumn season on British television started last night. On BBC 1 at 5.20pm Bruce Forsyth presented an hour of highlights from last year's series of The Generation Game. In 1972 the same programme started half an hour later with one change. He then had Anthea Redfern to give 'the viewers a twirl'.

The Generation Game has been and gone and come back. In 1982, Noel Edmonds and The Late Late Breakfast Show opened the proceedings on the first Saturday of the autumn season. Mr Forsyth, himself, had not been evicted from the screen. He was on ITV hosting a game show.

The revival of The Generation Game shows how nothing much has changed on British television. Does this prove, as some argue, that the quality of television programming is in decline or, as others say, is the programme good television which deserves its long life.

The start of the autumn season is the most important date in the programme producer's diary. More important even than Christmas or Easter. It is the start of the annual search for an audience. For ITV and Channel 4, these are the most lucrative months for advertising. For the BBC, this is the time to justify the licence fee. And, traditionally, there is supposed to be something in it for the viewer as well. Which is why the beginning of the autumn season also marks the revival of the annual debate about quality in British television.

'All the research shows that people think television used to be better,' said Greg Dyke, group chief executive of London Weekend Television. 'They remember the memorable things and think there were a lot of them. But that isn't true.' Mr Dyke rescued TV-am from collapse with the help of Roland Rat before joining LWT.

A comparison of the 1972, 1982 and 1992 autumn season schedules supports that view: they are remarkably similar with very few memorable programmes in any of them. In every case, the vast bulk of so-called new season schedules have been simply new series of existing programmes. In 1972, the BBC led the season with a series of Till Death Us Do Part and with the announcement that Frank Bough, just back from the Munich Olympics, was to become a presenter on Nationwide. The TVTimes announced the return of Leslie Crowther in My Good Woman. There were just two wholly new series, one of which was Van Der Valk - also recently revived. On the BBC 1, there were new episodes of Softly, Softly, Task Force. But only two completely new series.

In 1982, it was the same. Alan Whicker returned, admittedly after 14 years away, to the BBC. Juliet Bravo was back for another series. The Late Late Breakfast Show and Angels were the only notable new arrivals. The BBC had started repeating episodes of Last of the Summer Wine. On ITV, there was little that was new.

Ten years later, there are, if anything, marginally more wholly new series.

Perhaps more important is the way in which the programme mix itself has barely altered over time. Taking the first Saturday night of the season on BBC 1 and ITV as a guide, there are few perceivable changes to the format: the film, sometimes a drama, the comedy game shows, and sport. There appears to be little to support the view that the programme range has become narrower.

On the two major channels, there are about the same proportion of foreign-made off-the-shelf programmes. In 1992 there are more than in 1972 but this is because close-downs have become later; and in ITV's case no longer exists. But the perception that the schedulers are constantly filling time with second-rate American serials is not fair, said Greg Dyke. 'Have a look at this year's schedules. There are practically no US series any more.'

In the first week of the autumn season of 1972, almost all the films on British television were made in America. That remains true in 1992.

So why is there a debate about the quality of television at all? According to Phil Redmond, creator of Brookside: 'These are all the subjective views of middle-aged executives. If you talk to the audience they're enjoying it just as much as they ever have been. In 1972 the TV was still fairly new and people were in awe of it. It's different now.' Those who argue that quality has fallen, tend to equate quality with seriousness, and often with theatrical drama. There is a perception that there are fewer weighty plays on television than there used to be. This is, in fact, not true. There are as many dramas this year as there were in 1972. But the style has changed.

The TV play of 1992 tends to grapple with issues of popular social concern and usually written for television.

In 1972, most of the plays were adapted from the theatre. In the first week of September, ITV was pushing one: a play called High Summer about a cricket pavilion by Terence Rattigan.

There is, according to the author Julian Barnes, a former TV critic of the Observer, a false perception that television's golden age occurred in the early 1980s. 'I remember a famous remark made by Dennis Potter on Late Night Line-up when he was asked: 'So you worked in the golden age of TV?'. He replied: 'We thought it was the silver age. People always think it's the dawning or the dusk. But I always believe there's never a golden age for television, it just waddles along in the middle most of the time.'

There have, of course, been some changes in television in the 20 years since the autumn season of 1972. According to David Elstein, director of programmes at Thames TV, among the most important have been the arrival of the soap and the decline of comedy. 'The soaps have squeezed a lot of early evening comedy out of the schedule. There has been a perceived decline in the strength of comedy. Ten or 15 years ago maybe there were 15 or 20 surefire comedy hits. There are only half a dozen now.'

Others might add to this a decline in the number of big-budget documentaries. 'But perhaps the most important aspect of all has been the change in viewing as an experience,' said Mr Elstein. 'There was a time when there were only two channels and a regular audience of 18 or 20 million. But audiences have declined and there are more choices open to them.'

It is this - the change in viewing habits among a contracting number of viewers - that is forcing changes to the schedules. Audiences have been falling since the early 1980s, partly because of the video recorder and the satellite competition, but also because people simply watch less television.

The viewers that remain are not the same as those who were watching in 1972. 'If you did the hard-hitting documentaries, people would think it a bit heavy- handed, turgid, a bit slow. People are used to much sharper media messages,' said Phil Redmond. These viewers, he says, want TV they can dip in and out of and they want original fiction. What they got was the soap. In the early 1980s, the mainstay was the situation comedy once or twice a week. But the soap is taking over the sitcom's role mainly because the quality of writing has fallen and they are less funny.

But the growth of the soap, even the Australian ones, should not be used as any evidence that the viewer is any less discriminating than he was in the 1970s. Greg Dyke says the viewer still wants, and still gets, quality. 'We've won Sunday night in the autumn season for four or five years from the BBC with a combination of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and London's Burning. People want upmarket television.'

Between 1972 and 1992, the television programmers have been dishing out more or less the same material. After 1992, as the number of stations expand, and the full impact of a contracting audience is felt, the schedules could finally start to suffer. There is, according to David Elstein, as much diversity in programmes now as there was 20 years ago. But he fears that commercial pressures could undermine that. Television, he says, needs risk-taking to be healthy. 'Earlier this year Thames broadcast Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (from the novel by Angus Wilson). It was high-risk and it wasn't going to pick up a 10 million audience. But it was a TV event. TV needs them. It is positive scheduling. How much will survive is hard to predict.'

Last week, a leaked BBC report revealed that the corporation is planning to stop making game shows and claim the 'high ground' from ITV and the satellite stations and return to making literary drama. That would mark a real change in programming, turning the clock back 40 rather than 20 years. But is that what the viewer wants? Not according to Phil Redmond: 'Long gone are the days when an audience says to itself: 'Um, there's a marvellous play at half past eight on Wednesday. I must stay in.' '

(Photographs omitted)

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