Why shouldn't great television be good?

One of the judges at Montreux called 'Pop Idol' perfect television: are these people insane?
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The Independent Online

There is a conversation you sometimes have with very sophisticated people about a television programme, and it goes like this. The subject of the currently fashionable TV nerdathon, as Martin Amis calls them, comes up, and you energetically discuss Big Brother, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or The Weakest Link. Then something in the other person's eyes stops you short. "I can't believe we're talking about this terrible rubbish," you say nervously. "Oh yeah," he will say. "Rubbish – but great television."

The notion of "great television" is, I must say, a fairly baffling one. It doesn't seem to bear any kind of relationship to any other standards of judgement. Something can be amateurish, banal, boring and stupid and still, somehow, end up being "great television". It's an ingenious way of warding off any kind of criticism, since no one really knows what it means. I would call it a kind of cowardice, were it not for the fact that proponents of "great television" evidently believe in it fervently. A coward knows all about his own cowardice; these people have found a way to lower their ambitions, and display the results as bold innovation. It doesn't bode well, frankly.

The latest example of "great television" triumphant is ITV's talent show, Pop Idol, which has just been awarded the Golden Rose at Montreux. In itself, the format was quite an entertaining one; a cross between an old-fashioned eliminator quiz show and a talent contest. Week after week, 10,000 hopeful auditioners were whittled down to a final 10, and then a single winner. Various heart-warming human stories emerged – plucky Gareth struggling with his stammer, plucky Fat Rik struggling with being the size of a bus, plucky Darius struggling with terminal naffness. They all went to number one in the hit parade and millions of viewers went to put the kettle on.

It was perfectly OK, a very reasonable industrial product which whiled away an hour or so as you were trying on a succession of Saturday night outfits. I'd have as soon given a prize to a plank of wood. It did the job, fairly mechanically – the early stages were an interminable succession of interview, audition, dismissal, phone mum, tears, over and over again. It made everyone involved rather a lot of money out of the phone voting, without ever aspiring to any kind of originality, and buggered up a few young lives, as if anyone cared. And at some point, inexplicably, it suddenly became "great television". One of the judges at Montreux went further, and called it "perfect television". Are they insane?

The great truth about television is that nobody knows anything. And how can they, when the principal standard of judgement is how many people turned on at a particular time? That tells you precisely nothing about the quality or the success of your programme. A programme now is judged a great success if it delivers, say, 10 million viewers to the waiting advertisers; necessarily more than a drama series which only pulls in a million or two.

That looks like fairly compelling logic, but if you consider your own viewing habits, you quickly see that it isn't any kind of judgement at all. If you are like me, you will have a few programmes which you don't actively object to watching in a mindless way – last week, having nothing better to do, I actually sat and watched Rolf Harris throttling a badger for half an hour, I admit. Then there are programmes which you feel actively enthusiastic about, which you would recommend to your friends and perhaps make a point of watching – at the moment, I'm passionately enthusiastic about Channel 4's divinely silly Teachers, and feel mildly annoyed when I miss an episode.

The point is that, despite much discussion in the industry of "water-cooler" television – the sort which arouses debate and personal recommendation – its principal means of judging success is simply how many people watch it. The 10 million people who watch Blind Date, or whatever, are probably only mildly interested in it. The programme which matters, on the other hand, is probably going to be the drama series which only scores a million; because what those figures don't reveal is that every one of those million viewers feels passionately about it. Who now knows what the ratings of Fawlty Towers were initially? In the end, the only thing that counts is the aesthetic judgement.

So giving a prize to Pop Idol is a bit of an abdication. The programme was a financial success all round, and that really ought to be enough. When they start claiming that it had any kind of merit, they are pushing their luck a bit. The worrying thing is that good television is already in decline; it will only be when we have got rid of all of it in favour of wall-to-wall "great television" that we will see clearly how absolutely misguided that standard of judgement always was.