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In defence of modern television?

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 26th April 2009

Without resorting to any hackneyed Jane Austen-inspired opening sentences, it's painfully apparent that public satisfaction with television is at a low ebb. One only need browse through a copy of the Radio Times or scroll through 'watch again' programmes available 'on-demand' to see the sheer amount of bad television crapping itself out of a screen somewhere near you on an hourly basis, and that's just on Freeview. On the other hand, a significant number of recent television programmes (often from America, admittedly) are considered to be 'definitive' examples of quality television. But what is it that makes people think British television is so bad these days, opposed to any other era?

Firstly, I think it's fair to say that, considered as a whole, television has always been rubbish. What repeats we do see of television from the 'golden era' of the 1960s and 1970s gives the unfair impression almost every programme was amazing. This is far from the truth, and most of the programmes broadcast then were just the same bland mixture of entertainment and variety shows, talent contests and game shows, mixed in with poorly acted soaps and cheesy sitcoms.

The difference is that with all this being broadcast up to 40 years ago, the only programmes most of the older generation remember (or the younger generation hear about via the myriad of clips shows or best-of compilations) is the 'best of the better'. Even then, on repeated viewing by modern standards, many of these programmes are surprisingly poor.

Indeed even programmes still considered to be amongst the finest, such as The Morecambe and Wise Show (14th on the BFI's 2000 list of the greatest British television programmes), can be almost unbelievably bad when one watches the whole grinding hour of childish jokes, embarrassing celebrity appearances and mostly lame sketches. Shock horror there, but that's the key point - yes, there are some enjoyable moments and yes, it does succeed in being genuinely 'family friendly' (an achievement rarely managed by programmes of its ilk today), but the fact of the matter is that most people's memories of that series are unfairly skewed by the Christmas repetitions of roughly three specials from that era which glean much of their comedy value from celebrity cameos. That's the one with Penelope Keith, the one with Elton John and the one where the newsreaders sing South Pacific.

It's easy to have fond memories of a programme when only certain moments have been repeated to saturation point, and assume that the rest was of the same quality. Eric Morecambe died while they were still widely popular, and it's often glossed over by fond reviewers that by 1983, the duo had been poached by the commercial broadcaster Thames TV, where their show was not living up to its own expected standards. Again, though, everyone has talked Morecambe & Wise and other comparable shows up so much that they have become almost holy, and anybody uttering against them is put to the sword. But then, what do I know? I don't like Fawlty Towers either.

Another factor is that television in that 'golden era' was severely restricted - broadcasts on most days only began at about 3pm for children's programming ending just after midnight, or passing to the Open University. The rest of the day was filled by 'trade test transmissions', meaning during working hours, a test card was shown accompanied by inoffensive music (which this author must confess to liking). There were also only three channels (Channel 4 only started in 1983, Five in 1997). Therefore, although there was a lot of dross, at least the space it had to fill was much smaller, and so the best of the programmes on offer went on one of those three channels. Now, there are a million other channels and home entertainment formats vying for the hapless viewer's attention, and the five terrestrial channels are left having to make programmes designed to appeal to the 'average' viewer, which sadly means it appeals to nobody specifically.

This lack of vision appears to have been a major contributor to ITV's current woes; ostensibly, it seems to be suffering from a severe revenue drought, therefore lacking the commercial clout to rival its licence-funded rival. That's the excuse their analysts would suggest. However, I wonder if it's something more long standing. In the past ITV wasn't really competing with the BBC or Channel 4. It was competing against itself, or rather the regional licence holders were all competing to make the best, most sellable programmes to be networked throughout the country - don't forget that The World at War, Brideshead Revisited and Thunderbirds were all made for ITV by separate companies: Thames TV, Granada and ATV respectively, rather than the big conglomerate it is now. This only came about with the 1990 Broadcast Act, which deregulated the independent television stations, allowing the bigger, wealthier companies to take over their smaller competitors. Thanks for that, Mrs Thatcher.

Commercial television will be discussed in a later article, but although it may seem a surprising sentiment from one who would endorse ITV's current reputation as the home of idiotic and meaningless programming, it does seem a great shame to see such a company being forced to cut its drama spending and relying on I'm a Celebrity-type programming.

While almost conforming to my own earlier argument about rose-tinted television nostalgia, the channel has previously produced some of the finest television programmes on British television and of course, without that competition, it's likely that the BBC will become lazier in creating quality TV as well. Why blow your budget on a big, quality drama or documentary series with a four-year gestation period, when you could see more viewers through a Hole in the Wall-type entertainment format?

But, in writing that, I have obviously sidestepped all the other dross that ITV used to make in the past, and that's the point - those are three outstanding programmes of many thousands. And the reasons why certain programmes are outstanding is what we'll be discussing in a later article.



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