Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 23/12/03

Turn It Off!

"Television was invented in order to be lousy at Christmas", said a wise man. Or, if it wasn't him, it was me.

Like many truths, it gains force with each passing year.

Time was when I would eagerly await the publication of the Christmas & New Year double issues of the Radio Times and TV Times. As soon as they arrived, I would sit down with a sheet of paper and plan out my viewing and listening for the fortnight. At the end of this process, I would end up with a side of A4 paper full of programmes not to be missed (and bear in mind that I have small handwriting, a habit developed in student days to minimise expense).

In recent years, however, the task of finding toothsome morsels has become increasingly difficult, rendering finding a needle in a haystack a leisurely pursuit with immediate results by comparison. Last year, the entire list amounted to about five lines - and two of those were for John Peel's Festive Fifty.

So what has gone wrong? Well, the problem is far more than just a failure of imagination or nerve on the part of the TV companies at Christmas time; it's a sign of a far greater and deeper malaise than that.

In this rant, I'm going to concentrate on what has gone wrong with ITV. This is partly because that is where the decline in television in this country is at its most acutely visible, and partly because my remaining interest in television is bound up with nostalgia, that word which is used so often in a contemptuous or dismissive way to imply living in the past (nothing wrong in that of itself - it's usually cheaper there) rather than, as I would prefer to see it, a way of celebrating what is worth keeping from earlier times and developing it for future use. This is what leads me to contribute to such web-sites as TV Ark and APFS (*), and to visit other such sites regularly.

There was a time when ITV was widely envied in the world as a fine example of how commercial TV did not have to be crass, lowest-common-denominator pleb-fodder. This was the ITV of Lew Grade who (Raise The Titanic notwithstanding) had an instinct for what would be popular quality viewing; of the Bernsteins at Granada who proved that you could transmit socially-aware programmes at peak times and get high viewing figures; of the small regional companies who, whilst not contributing much to the network schedules, were committed to (and, more often than not, had deep roots in) their own locality.

So, what went wrong? Basically, the intrusion of a powerful and corrosive political and economic ideology. The old, semi-paternalistic style of ITV was not to the liking of those who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Break the chains, said the buccaneers of the new media age, and let freedom ring!

This 'freedom' was primarily about the freedom of corporations to maximise their profits. Nothing, but nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of so noble a goal, went the Creed Of The Philistines, especially if it means a favourable slant in the print organs owned by the same kind of mogul.

The zenith (or, as it turns out, the nadir) of this philosophy was encapsulated in the Broadcasting Act of 1990. In it, regulations which (for all their weaknesses) had meant that quality was considered the key test by which an application for an ITV franchise was judged, were junked. From now on, the dosh was all - after all this was a form of public good which was being sold off - it would be a shocking dereliction of duty if it were to be divvied up on the cheap, especially to people who thought that making excellent programmes was more important than maximising shareholder value.

Following what the tabloid press would call 'an outcry', a small, all-but-meaningless quality requirement was inserted in the provisions - but this wouldn't be allowed to stand in the way if other considerations dictated otherwise.

And there were 'other considerations', and some of them were downright sinister. The governing ideologues of Thatcherism certainly saw Granada as a nest of pinkoes, no better than those fellow-travelling Reds at the BBC. Moreover, there were other old scores to be settled: the government had never forgiven Thames Television for showing the Death On The Rock documentary, which exposed literally lethal lying by senior politicians and officials. And so the scene was set: the franchise round to take effect on 1st January 1993 was the acid test for the new, lighter, 'arms-length' regulation.

When the dust cleared and the underpants had been put in the wash, we had the sight of a world-renowned company (that very same Thames which had incurred prime-ministerial wrath) losing its licence to a company of chancers and City wide-boys called Carlton - a company with no track-record but plenty of brash promises.

There were other victims too: Television South were largely to blame for their own downfall, having over-reached themselves by buying MTM under a previous management team; but Television South West were guilty of nothing more than not being 'dynamic', 'thrusting' and all those other piddling epithets thrown about as a substitute for intelligent analysis. The only humour to be found in the entire mess was when (perhaps in some mood of mild mischief) the regulators decided to cut the tops off Mrs. Thatcher's favourite boiled eggs at TV-am. She was, apparently, incandescent with rage, and sent an apologetic fax from her unwilling exile to Bruce Gyngell, the station's chief.

This wasn't the end of the problem, though. Another provision of the 1990 Act and the decisions taken in its wake was to make it easy for companies to buy up further franchises with little or no intervention or comment from the regulators.

And this, as sure as Simon Cowell is an egregious git, is what happened. The new breed of TV company owners and managers, like Michael Green of C*rlton and Gerry Robinson, the terminally third-rate catering manager who took charge of once-respected Granada, saw their chance and grabbed it. Carlton (facing constant criticism of its own programming - Dennis Potter describing it, with uncharacteristic understatement, as a 'predictable disappointment', for example) was the first to launch its warships, acquiring Central, Westcountry and HTV in quick succession, and turning the first two into nothing much more than outhouses (only political pressure stopped HTV being debranded as well). Granada then started playing catch-up and in time gobbled up all those parts of England Carlton hadn't got (having had to sell HTV to Carlton as a result of a rare act of resolve by the ITC). Between them, they now had Mayfair, Park Lane and all the utilities.

And the end result? What we see today: an ITV controlled almost totally by two companies, and those two soon to be merged into one huge corporation (to be called, with customary effrontery, ITV plc). All regional identity has been ruthlessly airbrushed off the screen, except for the very recent token gesture of having pictures of local scenery behind the formless, gormless generic idents of 'ITV1'; local continuity and even entire studio complexes have been closed down and production and administration centralised in London; management and PR Visigoths who think, like the Tories who thought that all they needed to do to make the Poll Tax more acceptable to the people of Scotland was to enforce it with even greater rigour and viciousness, that the answer to their problems is more centralisation, more generification, and the removal of any lingering commitment to quality.

As for the programming and the vision, well, it is impossible to imagine ITV today broadcasting serious documentaries and current affairs programmes in a peak-time slot as they once did with World In Action, This Week and The World At War. Instead we have I'm A Paradise Pop Star, Get Me My Image Consultant. All is froth, a televisual cappuccino which, when you reach the bottom, turns out to be based on a thin layer of shit-coloured liquid.

All this under the gleaming simper of a Labour Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, who watches proudly as the condemned man that is today's ITV kicks open the trapdoor beneath its own bound feet and plunges towards Rupert Murdoch, that mortuary attendant for all decent broadcasting values.

Funny how there's so little worth watching nowadays, isn't it?

Historical Note: APFS (Afternoon Programmes Follow Shortly) was a web-site run by Mark McMillan which was a gallery of 'mocks'; that is, of presentation graphics either of television stations which had existed, or of stations which never did; a sort of exercise in 'what-iffery'. The site closed in about 2006.