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Home > Media

TVJism: Who killed television?

13 August 2004

Big Brother came to its usual underwhelming conclusion last week, leaving the housemates considerably better-off as they begin their journey into the David Brent twilight world of personal appearances. 'Tonight we've got Big Brother's Jason. That's why you're drinking from plastic glasses.'

But even Big Brother sceptics like us have to admit it's left a big hole in the schedules. For all the loathability of Big Brother, it did guarantee a certain, extremely base, level of entertainment, whether it was looking at Stuart's pretty face, Shell's pretty tits, or just wondering at the kind of society that produced Victor and Jason. (Who, curiously, looks uncannily like Dr Frank N. Furter's sexually ambivalent creation, Rocky Horror.)

Oddly, in this age of cable and satellite, more and more people seem to complain 'There's nothing on TV'. Quite clearly these people are dirty liars - there's lots on TV. But why don't they want to watch it? What's wrong with TV?

Well, for a start the brave new dawn of TV consumer choice hasn't really materialised. As Henry Ford might have said: 'You can have any programme so long as it's shit.'

Back in the dark days of the terrestrial quadropoly, inflicting shite on a captive audience was the norm. Are You Being Served?, The Stanley Baxter Picture Show, 3-2-1, The Two Ronnies, Little and Large, The Price Is Right, Five Alive... if you didn't like it, you had to watch BBC2 or Channel 4, only to discover they were showing 15 hours of opera or Tony Harrison's 'V'.

With satellite, cable and digital the idea was that you'd get more choice, but the only channel that's even begun to succeed in providing something different is BBC 4. Even with 500 channels, choice is still rather limited: apart from channels that are simply unwatchable (Get Lucky TV, anyone?), most simply show the same small clutch of programmes over and over again.

This has some bizarre effects. Even likeable shows like Friends rapidly make you want to poke your eyes out when they're on every day, repackaged in increasingly desperate ways. E4 is possibly the worst offender: 'Next - four of those much-hated Friends clip shows back to back!'

Unfortunately, flogging repeats to death is the tip of the iceberg. The problems of contemporary TV are best summed up as follows:

- Drama-phobia

When was the last time you saw a decent drama on TV? State of Play, and that's about it. Contrary to what TV types might say, there WAS a golden age of TV drama: Play for Today, the many Dennis Potter adaptations and suchlike. Even in-yer-face- Thatcher's-Britain-innit? dramas like Brick Is Beautiful and Prospects were good compared to Holby City and Heartbeat. Honourable mentions should also go to Edge of Darkness, Day of the Triffids, and even the John LeCarre adaptations that required you to take notes to work out what the fuck was going on.

- Everything must become reality TV

There's a modern tendency to turn any idea into reality TV. C4 is about to treat us to a gaggle of youngsters being subjected to 1960s education, after the 'success' of a previous show about 1950s education. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but the whole issue of standards in education is surely better addressed with an actual documentary by actual journalists with actual research. You wouldn't try to make a programme about the Six-Day War using glove puppets, would you? (If you work in TV, ignore that rhetorical question.)

- Celeb Fixation

By this we do not mean shows like Michael Jackson's Millions. These shows are neither good nor bad, they just exist, like gravel. What's dismal is when a show has a celebrity as its raison d'etre, eg. Natalie Cassidy Goes Wild in Australia (BBC1, this week). Cassidy, the Moomin-girl from Eastenders, meets Aussie wildlife. That's it. End of concept. 'It's about to go extinct,' she commented of a Flat-Billed-Kangapossum, or something. Oh that 'celebrities' would.

- The 'If it gets made, it must be good' attitude

There's an 'emperor's new clothes' quality to a lot of TV. Take Johnny and Denise. The majority of people are indifferent to this show - it's just a bit of moving wallpaper while you eat your tea. More discerning viewers rightly believe it's a piece of botched-together crap. But some desperate producer somewhere has assembled the idea and got it made - so it must be good. But why bother? It's as random and pointless as, say, 'Kate Lawler and Basil Brush Discuss Fighter Planes of the 1950s in Steve Winwood's Bunco Booth in Tel Aviv'. (Copyright The Friday Thing, just in case.)

- Copycat-ism

Or, perhaps more accurately, neophobia. You enjoyed Ibiza Uncovered? In that case you're going to love Tenby Uncovered 12. TV is essentially a creative medium: it requires new ideas all the time and voraciously devours them. So why bother to work in TV if you'd be happier working for the B&Q marketing department devising a strategy to sell pre-painted wood screws?

- Overload Syndrome

Five words: Graham Norton and Davina McCall. Graham's ultra-camp schtick is halm amusing. Davina's disciplinarian presenting is curiously compelling. But not ALL THE FUCKING TIME. Come, death, come.

- The TV class war

There's a weird element of class conflict in contemporary TV.Under a thin veil of irony, middle class TV executives commission hour after hour of miserable, pointless crap for the plebs. The plebs don't care; they watch a pay-per-view movie or have a barbeque. Middle class TV types seem to have forgotten that the plebs watched Monty Python, Edge of Darkness and sometimes even A Very Peculiar Practice. But if there's a danger that people without a degree 'won't get' an idea, then don't bother making it.

- Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment

'Entertainment' shows dominate TV for a number of reasons. They're cheap to make, compared with drama or comedy, and a single format, however lame, can be strung out for several series, eg. Street Date, Flava (remember that?), Ready Steady Cook, Changing Rooms, Vernon Kay's Head Jam, oh the list is fucking endless. But let's not forget what is possibly the last word in brain-dead shite: L!VE TV's Spanish Archer. There's just one problem, it's not 'entertainment' by any normal definition of the word.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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