The night I stopped watching television 

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Nigel Stapley’s TV Licence expires. So he turns off his TV. For good.

The evening of Thursday, November 30 2006 was a significant one in my house.

It marked the night that I stopped watching television. Or, at least, stopped watching it in my own home. However, as I seldom get invited anywhere (a fact which raises fewer eyebrows than I would have hoped), it amounted to the same thing.

Why that night of all times? Well, because that was the night my television licence ran out.

To prevent any misunderstandings, let me say that I have no objection to the licence fee system in principle: on the whole, I see it as the least worst way of funding the BBC. The mad marketeers have made their various pitches down the years, but all of them have proven unsatisfactory in one key sense or another. A subscription system would freeze out those too poor to pay (unless you then created a complex bureaucracy along the lines of the Tax Credits system to ensure that people didn’t miss out); getting the BBC to take advertising would be disastrous both from the economic and the – for want of a better word – artistic point of view (look at what ITV has become for a terrible warning); and direct funding out of general taxation would place the Corporation at an even greater risk of political interference than it faces now, especially in the post-Hutton landscape where Auntie seems to have been terrified into mute acquiescence by the Government-sponsored ‘hoodies’ who bang threateningly on her windows shortly after six every morning.

I’d thought about getting shot of my television in previous years, but had always chickened out at the last moment. This was partly because Christmas was on the horizon, partly because such an action might be seen (if only by my own sweet self) as being sympathetic to any of the various campaigns to get rid of the licence fee altogether (the most vocal of which has featured an extreme right-wing columnist from the Murdoch press, a Russian emigré ex-mental patient and Norris McWhirter); and partly because I renewed my licence every November at our village Post Office. I liked the thought that I was – if only once a year – putting business the way of a much-needed community resource.

It was, of course, this last factor that had changed. In early 2006, the BBC cut a nasty little deal with the private company PayPoint which gave it exclusive rights over this highly-lucrative – and guaranteed – revenue stream, and cut the Post Office out of the equation altogether. This went through without so much as a squeak from Secretary of State Tessa Jowell (a.k.a. Miss Regional Television – well, yes we do, actually), as yet another of her serial derelictions of duty.

It was this which tipped me over the edge. Well, that and the fact that television had become increasingly unwatchable for me in recent years. Lest I be accused of snobbishness, let me say that I have, in my time, loved television. My own website (www.thejudge.me.uk) contains, either in articles or indirect references, ample proof of the part television has played in my life. I have contributed quite extensively to the fora at TVArk, TVLounge and TVShelter successively. Heck, I even made eight sets of mocks for Mark McMillan’s now-defunct Afternoon Programmes Follow Shortly site!

That loyalty, however, had been strained to the limits by television’s ever more obvious weaknesses, and my daily use of the set had become limited to calling up CEEFAX and Teletext to read the latest news when I got up to go to work, and again when I came home.

All the same, this was going to be A Big Step, and I thought long and hard about it as November drew nearer. In the end, I decided that I had little to lose, although I wasn’t clear as to what, if anything, I’d have to gain. So, at about 8.00 pm on the last evening of the month, I started my very own closedown sequence. First, I switched the VCR to its output channel. This meant that I could tune all the channels on the television set to it, in order to prevent any channel from receiving a signal from outside. I then disconnected the aerial, and discovered that a certain amount of signal was still able to get through.

I then went through each of the forty channels on my television (a Bush, about twelve years old), setting each to the VCR’s RF channel. This wasn’t as easy as it might seem, because the set has one of those auto-tuning thingies which works in one direction only. This meant that, if I started from Channel 41 and I wanted to go to Channel 37, the confounded thing would seek all the way up to Channel 68 before jumping back down to scan from Channel 21.

As a result of this, I got faint glimpses of the channels as they went by. It was a bit like a delirious dream, in that everything was rather fuzzy and disparate images followed hot upon one another’s heels. I saw (and only saw, because I had the sound off) what appeared to be:

• a scene with a comedy vicar

• an advert for ear-wax remover

• another ad where a girl with full lips, big teeth and (one suspects) no knickers seemed to be eating, with near-orgasmic relish, from a can of dog food

• a scene with an implausibly good-looking young couple sitting on a sofa talking. I suspect this to have been American, because it was set in one of those living rooms which has a staircase running across the back wall

• a woman trying (and failing) to be as sexy as Jenny Agutter (that’s the American Werewolf In London Jenny Agutter, not the Railway Children one: whaddya think I yam, some kinda poivoit?)

• a brief glimpse of some men of limited articulacy kicking a ball around a field in Frankfurt-am-Main.

All these images, taken together, seemed to me to sum up all of what television had become, and much of what had gone wrong with it. Soon they had all passed, like the pictures I imagine flash across the inner eye of a dying man, and all forty channels had been detuned. Detuning the VCR was a piece of C*rlton by comparison, as I could just type in the RF channel number and that was it.

Shortly after 10.00 pm (after a last look at the clock), the sets were switched off, disconnected, and manhandled into the corner of an upstairs room to sit there, sullen and unregarded.

What, at that time, did I think I would miss about television?

• QI, television’s only remaining funny and intelligent quiz show

• five’s relay of Major League Baseball once or twice a week (although, due to the time difference, I could only watch that off tape anyway)

• having CEEFAX and Teletext on first thing in the morning to catch up with the world before I went to work

• Time Team. Phil Harding’s grin and Mick Aston’s jumpers have become television icons.

Similarly, what did I think that I wouldn’t miss?

• The letters pages on CEEFAX and Teletext, which were full of people yabbing on about “nasty foreigners doing us down!”, “the dictatorial EU superstate!!”, and that perennial chart-topper, “Political Correctness GAWN MA-A-A-A-D!!!”

• Programmes which start four minutes later than advertised due to commercials and/or trailers, and then go to another ad break scarcely eight minutes into the programme

• Ant and Dec, Ainsley Harriott, Paul O’Grady and endless series of “I’m A Has-Been, Get Me My Agent!”

I didn’t have any indication as to how long my sense of noble detachment would last. At best, it would prove to be permanent, freeing up time in my life to do other, more interesting things. At worst, it would be a useful experiment upon myself, and self-knowledge is always worth having.

But how, you will surely ask (as, indeed, the editor who commissioned this piece has asked – frequently) did I become so disillusioned with television, and why do I think that there’s nothing on it which is worth persevering with?

First of all, let me say that this process of disillusionment is not something which is necessarily easy to express. Some of it comes down to little more than the extension of a gut feeling, an inchoate sense that something no longer fits. This may be allied to a form of mid-life crisis to which those of us in our mid-forties are, I’m told, all too likely to fall victim.

I’m not sure that it’s all just down to world-weary cynicism, though. I can draw a parallel in my own life between those twin religions of our age, television and football. I was committed to The Beautiful Game for many years; indeed, I spent over seven years helping to run one of Wales’ top amateur clubs, and believe me you don’t do that if you’re not obsessed. But the coming of the Premiership (with its “Haul up the ladder, Jack, I’m on the raft!” attitude), the skewing of the European Champions’ Cup to become the plaything of the richest countries and clubs, and the consequent impoverishment of the game at the local, grass-roots level have combined to cause me to completely lose interest in it. Even when I still had a television, I could think of far more interesting ways of spending my time than watching the Carnival Of The Overpriced that football has become.

The comparisons can be overstretched, of course, but they’re still valid. For the Premiership, read the ITV franchise round of the same year; for the Champions’ League read the outbreak of satellite and (latterly) digital channels; for Abramovich v. the Glazers, read Branson v. the Murdochs. In the first case, we have an instance of the self-elected and the avaricious being given the chance effectively to grant themselves permanent possession of the top table; in the second, we have the turning of something which was sufficiently rare to be An Occasion into a once-or-twice-a-week, humdrum regularity, with the same old faces being presented in ever-more-desperate combinations; and, in the last, we have the arena becoming nothing much more than a battlefield upon which powerful egomaniacs spit and stamp at each other.

In both areas, those with control have fallen into the same errors, one which is the prevailing fallacy of our age: namely, that more must automatically mean better. Like the closely-allied idea of all this ‘choice’ we’re told that we have nowadays, it’s more mist than matter. There is, by now, more than sufficient evidence to counter these notions, but it has become so deeply entrenched that to argue against it risks one being labelled a Luddite crank. “But we have more channels than ever before!”, shriek the neophiliacs, “We have so much choice!”.

But do we? Even the most cursory examination of the schedules of satellite and terrestrial channels alike will reveal a terrible uniformity – of approach if not always of substance. One channel buys up an idea, it proves successful (probably because it’s the only idea of its type at that point), so everyone else seeks to copy it. So having already passed through Gardening Glut, Decorating Dementia and Makeover Madness, we have now reached what Douglas Adams would have called The Reality Show Event Horizon, where ever-more fiendish ways of humiliating ever-more minor celebrities (or even members of the public desperate to obey Warhol’s Law) are devised for the purpose of egging-on the prurience or schadenfreude of the audience.

This has happened because of the near-limitless fragmentation of that audience, so that holding a viable share of it has become infinitely more difficult. There is, we are told, a channel for just about every taste nowadays, but what that means in practice is that the money for making programmes has to be spread more thinly than before. More importantly, it means that the talent has to be eked out too. It is possible for channels to raise extra money (even if it means going up to their dipoles in debts which they then have to recoup by chasing ratings like a dockyard whore in heat), but talent can’t be conjured out of thin air in the same way – it’s either there or it isn’t. The result of this combination of scarcities is that the programmes are not merely cheap – they look cheap. Production values follow everything else in a race to the bottom, and the programmes increasingly feature people (not just on screen, but in the technical and artistic areas) who would, twenty-five or thirty years ago, have struggled to find their niche on the United Biscuits network or in the BBC’s Open University unit.

OK, I know I’m a nostalgic: but not, I think, of the rose-tinted variety. There were things wrong with the old three- or four-channel terrestrial system: the stifling of innovation by stick-in-the-mud administrators and obstructive union bosses alike; a paternalism which often lapsed into the habits of mere control; and a variability of quality control which was almost inexcusable in an age where there was, by comparison, ample time to get it right (Mind Your Language, The Wackers or Churchill’s People anyone?).

Given the technical limitations, however, the achievements of that system far outweighed its failings. I remember the excitement of anticipation as we rented our first UHF set from Visionhire, and had the prospect of being able to see BBC2 at last. This (and Channel 4 later on – at least in its early years) was what television was made for, in my view. To inform, educate and entertain, and to do so intelligently. Documentary strands such as Horizon and The World About Us, quizzes such as Face The Music and Call My Bluff (and only a truly meritocratic network could host a programme about words where the two team captains had a pronounced lisp and a terrible stammer respectively), and genuine entertainment from such as the late, great Dave Allen. It even had the Trade Test Colour Films and the Transmitter Information for those of us who were broadcasting geeks avant la lettre. No matter that the channel had to suffer the odd jibe of being “the eggheads’ channel” or of having The Burkiss Way broadcast one of its famous mock continuity announcements which said, “And now another BBC2 programme that’s of minority interest – to everybody”. It had an elevated remit, and met it.

Even the ‘popular’ channels had quality, and did not knowingly underestimate the tastes of the public very often. That a mainstream commercial company like Thames could produce something like The World At War, for example, or Lew Grade’s ATV The Muppet Show (popular, but not cheap in either sense), was an indication that those involved in those companies took their duties seriously, and knew that quality may have cost in the short term, but would always win out in the final analysis.

Compare and contrast with today, where those in charge of all television channels seem to base their schedules and presentation styles upon the premise that the viewers have no more than average intelligence at best (and must not be encouraged to go beyond that), added to the attention span of a particularly forgetful carp. Hence the loud music, the intrusive announcements and captions over and beside end credits (and even during the programmes), the complete genericisation of ITV (because, apparently, the poor benighted viewer is ‘confused’ by having a television channel which has two complementary identities). Even BBC2 tends now only to create echoes of its golden days when re-running selections from BBC4′s output, and Channel 4′s ‘publisher’ remit has seen it turn into a rather glaring and grotty comic – Viz without the ironic intent.

Of course, television (particularly the commercial sort) is now owned, controlled and – certainly in its upper echelons – populated by people with no feel for either the medium or its best purpose. Is it really nothing more than a coincidence that the sad decline of ITV began when it started to be run by chancers, catering managers and those quacks of our time called ‘management consultants’, whose obsession with ‘the bottom line’ and the company’s share price led them to ‘let go’ the people who knew how to make good television, and to fail to see anything beyond bean-counting as the raison d’être of their companies’ existence?

But surely, you may ask, there are still some things worth watching? I wouldn’t disagree with that for a moment: as I’ve already said, programmes such as QI and Time Team, and some of the BBC4 documentaries which have been repeated on BBC2, are quality stuff which stand healthy comparison with the best of the past. However, they are a smaller and smaller proportion of the total, and one cannot help but wonder for how much longer such programmes can survive in the age of digital multiplexes and Video On Demand. Where once television was a uniter of society, it now doesn’t even bother to try; it merely seeks to mirror the increasing fragmentation of our lives without ameliorating it in any way. As such, it has ceased to be as central as once it was, which is why some of us have wondered why it is still regarded as odd to wish not to partake of it any more. Television has become, in a real sense, unimportant.

In short, there is too much television, of the wrong sort, done in the wrong way, and I don’t see this changing without a San-Andrean upheaval in the attitude of the public, politicians and the mediocracy, even if (as some researchers have concluded) the medium may be actively harmful either on an individual or a societal scale.

All right, this is all rather high-falutin’ stuff for explaining why I junked my television. There were less elevated reasons, not least of which was the happy thought of saving myself over £130 a year through not having to buy a licence. Another was the onrush of the analogue shut-off, which means that I would have had to replace all my existing equipment (or at least splash out on additional hardware) sometime within the next four years anyway. And there was the desire to see whether or not I actually could do without television, and how it would feel to be treated as some sort of freak or eccentric by those who knew me (not that they didn’t anyway, you understand: it’s just that now I could give them a valid reason).

So, eight or so months on (at the time of writing) and where am I? Well, still coping remarkably well, in that I can’t honestly say that I’ve missed it in the slightest (apart from one or two ‘autopilot’ moments in the first few days, when I reached for a remote control which was no longer there). The only times I have seen television since have been on my occasional visits to my brother’s house, and even then it has been merely audio-visual muzak, something going on in the background of our conversations or meals. What little I see on those occasions does not give me withdrawal symptoms or make me wistful. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel superior, either, mind. I’ve made my choice and others can make theirs as they wish: no-one is forcing anyone, and I’m not going to play the rôle of The Fox Who Had His Tail Cut Off.

The reactions of people when I tell them that I no longer have a TV set have been interesting. They’ve varied between a degree of mild astonishment and a sort of approval which leads me to suspect very strongly that more people would like to do the same if they could only screw themselves to the sticking point. It was, of course, easier for me as I live alone.

(I wrote and told TVLicensing that there was no longer any receiving equipment in use at this address. After about six weeks, they wrote and asked for an explanation. I replied by enclosing my original letter. They then wrote to me again saying that they would send someone around to check (the officialese version of shouting “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”), to which I replied that they were wasting their time, that whoever they sent wouldn’t be allowed in, and this would be followed by another letter from me withdrawing their implied right of access. I’ve heard nothing since.)

I keep in touch with the world via the PC I’m typing this on now, and by the radio if needed. I get my entertainment and amusement the same way, and there is enough talent out there if you know where to look, the difference being that the choice is almost infinite by comparison to television, and you don’t have to be limited to what a corporation (private or public) is willing to give you. The quality is often better, too.

As for my other aims, well I’ve had the time to become more literate in HTML and CSS, and have just finished preparing my own website’s upgrade and, this summer, I’m intending to spend much more time in the garden. I still haven’t learned to play the acoustic guitar I bought over four years ago, but I’m sure I’ll make progress there in time as well.

Oh, and you needn’t get down on your knees, face Sutton Coldfield and pray for my salvation: I haven’t had my aerials removed (the procedure which that grand old clown Malcolm Muggeridge described as “the moral equivalent of a prostate operation”). Just in case I change my mind…

Nigel Stapley

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