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What is Television For?

Simon Pitt | Television | Sunday 23rd August 2009

Whenever anyone complains about television, the unaddressed issue is that television should be doing something that it is not. But what is this 'thing' it should be doing? There is, of course, no definitive answer to this question in the same way that you can't say what literature is for, or what the arts are for. Nevertheless, there are, I think, a few things that you can say. This article addresses what I think should be and then examines why it isn't like this.

The BBC's Royal Charter lays out six public purposes. They are:
Cutting through the legalese, I would summarise these six purposes into three things that all television can and should do:
It is, I think, the latter two cause problems. When done well, TV gives us programmes like Horizon, Panorama and The South Bank Show. When done badly, it gives us freak shows like F*** Off, I'm Ginger, The Boy Who Gave Birth to his Twin and Too Fat To Toddle. At it's best TV gives us entertainment programmes like The Office, Red Riding and Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe. When done badly we get lazy sensationalist junk like Britain's Got Talent, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Total Wipeout. The point is, in both cases, there is a move towards the second type of programmes.

TV companies chose what they make because they think people will watch it. They make this prediction based on what been popular before. Recently, five things guarantee viewers, and so producers tend to make programmes that involve at least one of the follow:
Celebrity Fit Club, for example, hits several of these categories in one fell swoop. It's almost as if it's been cynically designed by a committee attempting to amalgamate everything that's proven popular into one derivative heap of drivel.

Since these programmes ensure that'll you'll always get a few million idiots tuning in, why make anything else? I mean, why risk investing money on something intellectual when you could just get Gok Wan to talk about how ugly someone looks for half an hour? After all, according to ITV's statement of programming policy, television success is the:
Ability to generate a commercial return on the schedule
ITV gets a commercial return by selling advertising. They can only sell advertising by ensuring people will be watching, and they can only do that by copying existing popular programmes. This necessitates rehashing old formats. Changing Rooms did well, so the schedules were flooded with home makeover shows. Big Brother was a success, so now every show has to have a voting element. Strictly Come Dancing was a hit, so why not stick celebrities on ice skates. While you're at it, why not give a load of celebrities batons and force them to conduct? Hell, why not make a load of choirs battle it out; those idiots out there will watch anything as long as it's a competition!

Commerce drives the market so much that programmers cannot afford to take a risk. Shows imitate each other until the audience eventually gets bored, then something new catches on, and you're away again with another raft of imitations. Currently, in 2009, the great British public have tired of watching people in a house. However, their capacity to watch Simon Cowell being nasty remains as strong as ever. People cooking has got boring, unless they're swearing while they're doing it. Improving gardens and houses is dull, but improving faces and bodies is all the rage. Singing is good, but not as good as trying to be someone's PA. I ask you, what the hell is going to be next? Celebrity Domestic Disputes: Celebrities argue about minor issues and the public votes for who was in the wrong? Pimp my Oxide: Competitive chemistry improvement programme? The Piss Off: urination-based game show?

The thing is television programmes aren't there just to get as many people watching as possible. Television is an art form like the novel or the film. While it's good if it lots of people watch it, populism, or viewing figures, are not the be all and end all. Advertising is there to fund television programmes, television programmes are not there to make money from advertising. Executives seem to have forgotten this.

ITV was established in 1954 to provide competition to the BBC. Rather than being funded by the licence fee, it covered its costs by selling advertising space. The Independent Television Authority monitored it to ensure it was not "vulgar" like commercial television stations in America. Commercial television is always in danger of becoming more sensationalistic that nationalised, non-profit television. After all, the more people who watch, the more money commercial stations make, and private enterprise is all about making money. Unlike the BBC, ITV has shareholders, and these shareholders only invest in the station in the hope of getting something back. Consequently, ITV's original purpose (to compete with the BBC) has been replaced by a new purpose (to make as much money as possible). Television just happens to be the way it does that.

Now that money has become television's primary motive, the quality of programmes is irrelevant. Programmes have to appeal to as many people as possible, and the best way to do this is to make melodramatic scandal. This is something that many of the arts have suffered from, but television has suffered worse that the theatre, the novel or the film. Indeed, it has gained a reputation as a "low art" of brain deadening tripe. But this only explains why ITV has descended into populist nonsense, not why the BBC has begun to as well.

Before 1981, the BBC and ITV kept track of their own viewing figures. In 1981, The BBC, working with ITV and Channel 4, set up BARB. BARB is an industry standard audience measuring service. Under this system, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 can accurately compare themselves to each other, encouraging further competition. At first, BARB also carried out an additional measurement called the Audience Appreciation Index, asking people how much they liked television programmes. This, however, required more effort and was more expensive to implement. Moreover, it did not matter to advertisers whether people liked what they were watching or not. All that mattered was how many of them there were, and so, at the end of 2001, BARB stopped monitoring audience appreciation. This leaves viewing figures as the only way of judging a programme's quality, and since the BBC has to compete with its commercial rivals, the only way it can do so is by competing to get the highest viewing figures.

As of 2009, the BBC has six core values, two of which are:
While its public purpose is to "stimulate creativity and cultural excellence", its core value is to appeal to as many people as possible. These, some might say, are incompatible. After all, what if the audience doesn't want excellent television, what if they want celebrities putting their faces into bowls of food? What should the BBC do? Make quality shows with lower viewing figures, or more sensationalist shows with higher viewing figures? Moreover, their other value is providing "value for money", and how else can you show value other than high viewing figures? With audiences at the heart of the BBC, and focus groups becoming more commonplace, television programmes are not made for their quality but for the extent to which they appeal to fictional demographic groups. TV executives have become like bad parents feeding their children chips and hamburgers all day, and then justifying their actions by saying "that's what they said they wanted".

Unfortunately, the sad truth is, you can't have it both ways. Occasionally you can have both, but generally programmes that gather the highest viewing figures are not necessarily those that are regarded as the greatest. Consequently, you have to make a choice, and balance your schedules between quality programming and high ratings. Unfortunately, in recent times, through attempting to show value and make money, the balance has tipped in favour of high viewing figures, and away from higher quality programmes.



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