Leading Article: No longer a nation of box-watchers

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TELEVISION executives up and down the country must have been reassured to hear the tale of a man who recently survived a harrowing industrial accident. Graham Blakeway, 43, was speared clean through his midriff by a steel rod, 20-feet long and half an inch thick, when a pressure-cleaning device he was using backfired. As firemen and rescue workers cut the pipe so that he could fit into an ambulance, the British Gas employee begged them to telephone his wife - and ask her to record on video for him that day's episode of Brookside.

Luckily for Mr Blakeway, the screening of a weekend omnibus edition meant that he was in no danger of missing his favourite programme. Unluckily for the British television industry, such dedicated fans are becoming fewer and further between. The media study by the Henley Centre, reported in this newspaper yesterday, argued that the tide of increasing television watching has at last turned: television is becoming a less significant activity for most of the population, except for those who cannot afford to do anything else. According to the study, 60 per cent of British respondents to a poll said they would prefer to go out than stay at home curled up in front of the box; 42 per cent believed television programmes were 'dull and predictable'; and 41 per cent thought they had become worse over the past year.

This is partly to be expected. Television is the cheapest and the least demanding of all leisure activities except sleep; no wonder, then, that people with money should choose other ways to spend their time. The latest edition of Social Trends suggests that Britons in the marketing specialists' A and B social groupings spend 18 hours and 51 minutes a week on average in front of the box, while those in groups D and E spend almost 32 hours. Even allowing for the fact that middle-class people are more likely to be embarrassed to admit the real extent of their watching habits, that is a huge difference. Rising prosperity for the country as a whole may help to explain the Henley decline.

Some pundits, such as Brian Winston, Cardiff University's Professor of Journalism, believe television stations have a more fundamental problem: with 40 years of programmes behind them, they have simply exhausted the possible formulae for television entertainment. This phenomenon - and the disappearance of the feeling of novelty that first made the medium popular - has been obscured by the continuing proliferation of channels and the rise of cable.

Two conclusions might be drawn from an analysis of the report. A reassuring one is that the declining popularity of the medium casts doubt on the fashionable doom theories of the Eighties, which predicted that television would exercise an increasingly baleful influence on the culture and intelligence of the inhabitants of industrial countries. A second, thought-provoking, conclusion is that programme makers need more than ever to try to create television that is truly good and innovative. At a time when cost pressures are great, with the BBC in turmoil and independent networks facing greater competition and the prospect of greater risk of takeovers, that is no small challenge.