Tom Sutcliffe: TV is about a lot more than moving images

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There was a lot of excitement about the third dimension at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – with numerous manufacturers unveiling various kinds of 3D television sets and 3D computer displays. But when you looked more closely at the froth and hype and exuberance, almost all of it appeared to stem from people who had a strong vested interest in leaving us dissatisfied with boring old D, never mind how many pixels it could boast or the dizzying height of its definition.

True, there were ordinary punters who expressed themselves startled by the quality that could now be achieved by 3D television, and disinterested sceptics who grudgingly allowed that it might find a market. But mostly the people who were talking about new paradigms and game-changing technology were the guys who desperately wanted to sell you a 3D set.

Perhaps they've got it right. Perhaps this will prove as irresistible as the arrival of colour. The obvious anxieties – that keeping track of all the 3D glasses you need will make looking for the remote control seem a doddle by comparison, and that quite a lot of people develop a four-dimensional headache while watching this way – will melt away. Perhaps it will soon be as strange to encounter a D screen as it is now to find a black-and-white television set.

But I have a feeling that all of these manufacturers have overlooked one critical fact: television at its best isn't really a visual medium at all. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule. David Attenborough's Life on Earth is a good example of the kind of series that is all about pictures. And big events and sporting fixtures always have been at the core of television, ever since the thrilling prospect of the 1953 Coronation nudged British consumers into buying their first sets. Both are dependent on spectacle, and susceptible to the allure of an improved kind of spectating.

But that's still a very narrow segment of what television actually delivers night after night, an enormous amount of which is far more about sound (about content, essentially) than it is about images.

EastEnders and Coronation Street regularly top the viewing figures, along with Britain's Got Talent and other reality strands, not because they offer us something more interesting to look at but because, for a lot of people, they offer a captivating narrative. And that quality – as has repeatedly been proved in the past – can struggle past a bad aerial and a faulty set.

This isn't a fogies' argument either. Young people understand perfectly well that television, even first-class television, isn't something to be watched so much as half-watched. And if nothing else does, the popularity of YouTube should send a chill down the spine of all of those investing heavily in 3D technology. It offers real-world proof that people will happily accept a step down in technological quality if it's balanced by a step up in the convenience with which they can get at their favourite shows.

The world in which people choose to watch programmes and music videos on a screen just two-and-a-half inches across while they browse the internet in another window is not one – I'm guessing – that will pay handsomely for a technology that demands they sit still and keep eyes front.

It might well work in the cinema, where you expect to do that anyway, but in the living room I'm guessing it will be a long time coming.

A lesson the West End needs to learn from Broadway

I went to see Legally Blonde last Saturday night – for professional reasons but taking advantage of the fact that the backers have adopted a Broadway approach to first nights. This approach lets critics see the show on a number of nights leading up to the opening, embargoing any reviews until a specific date.

In this country the usual practice has been for all the critics to go on the same night as the angels, diehard fans and cast members' relatives – though this tradition has seen some erosion recently, so much so that a rigid application of the "first night and no earlier" rule can sometimes now be taken as evidence that things have been a bit rocky in the rehearsal room.

It is, anyway, a practice that has long passed its sell-by-date, and I suspect producers and actors might benefit from a change just as much as reviewers. For one thing, critics – whatever they might say about their independence of mind – inevitably absorb each other's reactions during the interval (meaningful looks are exchanged, eyebrows are arched). For another, the hooting claque you get at a West End first night can often induce a simply perverse spirit of contradiction.

Naturally I wouldn't dream of breaking the embargo by reviewing the show or Sheridan Smith in the lead role, but I at least know that the enthusiasm of the audience I sat in wasn't because they were calculating the points on their investment or trying to big up some back-row hoofer. And by the time I get round to delivering my verdict I'll have had proper leisure to decide whether they were right.

Don't bet on a quick decision from Brown

I'm not a betting man, but if I was I'd be a bit tempted by the 10 to 1 odds being offered by one bookmaker on a 3 June election date. There are wild odds against elections in January or February (for obvious reasons) and then the odds start to narrow in March, with a little bump up again in April (presumably because Easter and the school holidays muddy the psephological waters).

But most of the smart money appears to be going on May – presumably on the grounds that 3 June – as the last date legally available – will be ruled out as looking pathetically desperate. My money is usually very stupid (which is why I'm not a betting man) but I wonder whether this pricing has fully taken into account prime ministerial psychology.

The one thing we know about Mr Brown is that when faced with a decision that might in any way be described as a dilemma – that is, one of those questions in which it is always going to be six of one and half a dozen of the other no matter how many focus groups you commission – he dithers and procrastinates until he has run out of time.

The fact is that Mr Brown is not a gambling man, either – and that's what this matter requires. It's a bit of a lottery punt, with no insurance against unforeseen circumstances cropping up before the starting gate flicks up. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the electoral timetable reaches a decision before the Prime Minister does.

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