Unto the wasteland 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1707

I must apologise for sounding so cheerless, but one look at ITV’s schedules for the 2001 Christmas period will show why.

ITV at the end of 2001 is safe, bland, boring and deadly dull; its audience figures have been in steep decline over the last ten or so years, and its programming lacks sparkle and imagination. It’s not just a subjective decline either; there are good old hard facts to back this claim up. BBC-1’s audience share hit a 20 year high earlier this year, which is something which cannot easily be dismissed as being a product of “multichannel penetration” or a “fragmenting viewer market” or any other combination of buzzwords that happen to be flavour of the month. There is a fundamental problem facing ITV that cannot be fixed just by showing “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” seven days a week.

It is a by-product of ITV’s repeated attempts to deliver the maximum share of the audience to its advertisers, caused by simply overdosing people on soap operas, quizzes, and cheap daytime programming. A reasonable audience for the least possible effort, but lowering standards over the longer term. Plus soap operas are now being produced much more frequently, leading to the inevitable dilution of the quality as a result. So how does ITV go about trying to reverse a decline in viewer loyalty caused by the weakening of soap opera plot lines?

The logical thing would be to cut back on the showing of soap operas so as to invest more time and effort into making them better so viewers will be more likely to tune in. But ITV’s course of action has been more akin to trying to plaster over the cracks by trying to maintain viewers by other means.

There has been a recent explosion in the use of ECP’s or End Credit Promotions. What this effectively means is that whilst the end credits are rolling in one part of the screen, a window pops up with a promotion for either the next episode or another different (but deemed relevant to the viewers of the programme that has just being shown) programme altogether. This means that there is much more happening in the closing moments of a programme than simply just a list of people who helped make the programme, a theme tune, and perhaps a voice reminding viewers of an upcoming attraction on ITV. The name of the game is to get your programme promotion on screen quickly before restless viewers switch to an opposing channel.

ITV nowadays is still (rightly or wrongly) regarded as a ‘common’ broadcaster (despite attempts to move upmarket with its dramas), and the pathetic excuse often quoted that ‘the middle classes enjoy Carol Vorderman just as much as poor people’ holds no water when you realise that all classes appreciate quality programming and light entertainment. You don’t need a six figure income to appreciate good television, but people have to make do with watching ‘Better Homes with Carol Vorderman’ simply because the other channels often fare little better in terms of quality and/or imagination.

I’m not claiming that there ever has been a golden age in television. But television (especially commercial television) has got significantly ‘worse’ over the last ten years. The BBC has often exploited ITV’s weaknesses by following the same path and copying ideas in order to save money along with cutbacks, triggering a vicious circle in decline which has only recently stabilised (and begun to reversed in the BBC’s case).

Not all of ITV’s decline, however, is ITV’s own fault. The Broadcasting Act 1990 can be held at least partly responsible for subsequent events with the creation of the Independent Television Commission, or ITC. The “commission” bit is important because it replaced the previous “authority”, meaning that the commission had effectively fewer powers and sanctions in order to control the ITV franchise structure. This therefore encouraged the ‘rot’ to set in, though the next stage occurred when the franchise changes took place at the start of 1993. Some of the changes were perhaps inevitable and indeed were probably right given hindsight, such as the demise of TVS, but other changes to the televisual landscape have had greater impact relating to programme quality.

The relative downfall of commercial television in the UK is due to several factors. The relative lack of regulation since 1990; the pursuit of quantity in terms of channel numbers at all costs (viz. the proposed analogue switch off); too much central control (too few people making too many major decisions relating to programme commissioning, resulting in too little diversity) mainly as a result of consolidation; overzealous watching of national viewing figures; the rise of the independent sector at the expense of the established franchises; and the franchises being effectively run by accountants and shareholders.

All these factors are mitigating to various degrees against the production of quality television; anyone who doubts that television has changed for the worse since 1993 ought to seek out articles published not long after the 1993 franchise changes, complaining about the poor quality of programmes produced by Carlton and others. The problem is that the clamour of criticism has stopped because nothing has changed in the interim; there is no benchmark that says that the quality of television ought to be at a defined level apart from what the BBC produces and there are virtually no current quality commercial television productions apart from selected ones on ITV which are glossy but deeply, deeply dull.

It is also very convenient that ITV (hardly ever) repeats programming other than films made more than ten years old side by side with newer programming; after all if you don’t show anything decent from a long time ago, viewers can’t turn round and say “that was brilliant compared with the garbage ITV is producing nowadays”. As well as this, many types of programmes (although brilliantly made at the time) would no longer be relevant to a mass audience if shown again; hence ITV can legitimately not show them again during peak time. How convenient for ITV! ITV is also using ‘the past’ as an excuse for not trying harder; ‘good’ programming was done ‘in the past’ therefore it is ‘old fashioned’ and ‘no longer relevant’, conveniently ignoring the fact that the late 1950s, for example, was an era filled with downmarket quiz shows and dramas.

It is no surprise that the BBC is ‘wiping the floor’ with ITV, so to speak. ITV has effectively abdicated responsibility to anything that can be described as ‘unusual’ or ‘thought provoking’ during the daytime and evenings up to 10:30pm – the most thought provoking ITV ever seems to get these days are the harder questions on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Don’t get me wrong, ITV is still capable of ‘subversive’ output, but most of it is well past the watershed and is typically produced by ‘independent’ production companies on a low budget.

Current affairs on ITV are typically represented by the likes of “Tonight with Trevor McDonald” which is as far removed as you can possibly get from the output ITV was producing even as recently as ten years ago. It’s arguable that “Death on the Rock” was a primary contributor to the loss of Thames’ ITV franchise, so some might argue that this made documentary makers tend to be more cautious with their choice of subject matter. But documentary makers nowadays try to over-dramatise mundane situations like dodgy cowboy builders and holidays from hell instead.

This is a shame, because television is all about making people sit up and notice, more than can be said for reporting on the antics of Mike Baldwin. News programmes (or more accurately, the ‘composition’) of ITV1 news programmes is now being stipulated by ITV – in the past, ITN was free to drop more trivial news items in preference for more serious stories if current events demanded it. Now the agenda is trying to fit more ‘light hearted’ news into the schedules, which may sound noble but the reality is that ITV controllers are so afraid that ‘dull news’ may put off viewers from watching.

It may be true that the audience for hard news programming has dropped dramatically since 1997 – people are less interested in politics than they used to be – but that’s absolutely no excuse whatsoever for interfering with the general content and scope of news bulletins, which is a totally outrageous thing to do and is akin to the manipulation of news bulletins by governments.

It is up to the editor to determine the contents of a bulletin; it’s bad enough at present with whole chunks of bulletins often devoted to the shameless promotion of ITV programming. People are interested in ‘harder news’ even if they would switch off political debate; the recent terrorist attacks on New York and the subsequent fighting in Afghanistan have proved this beyond any reasonable doubt – indeed these events may have saved serious news from total oblivion. But why should it take a momentous world event to intervene and prevent ITV from ‘dumbing’ down its news into Posh Spice oblivion?

It seems that the bosses at the various ITV companies are so enslaved by the figures produced by the BARB boxes measuring who watches what (and when) that they feel compelled to repeat a ‘winning formula’ time and time again, even though most of the programming ideas are so old it’s well past its sell by date. Even the so-called ‘new’ ideas such as Survivor are borrowed ideas that are regarded as ‘proven winners’. It’s a shame that programme commissioners appear to be so blinkered and unimaginative that they don’t even stop to think whether the idea will appeal to the ‘Great British Masses’; the dangerous and reckless philosophy seems to be that “if it has worked in another country, then it must work in the UK; if it then fails it’s down to bad perception or bad promotion”.

This philosophy has extended to regional programming on ITV1 (or lack of it); today’s buzzword is “one size fits all” – in short, everything that’s popular in Chingford will also be popular in Grange-over-Sands. (Except perhaps a football match featuring Arsenal.) It may be true that Blind Date is watched by families up and down the length and breath of the UK, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything that ITV shows will equally appeal to all parts of the country. This also highlights a flaw in the reliance of national viewing figures since they fail to show regional variations in taste. Tony Blair and friends ought to bear this in mind next time they are invited to dinner by senior television executives who use the meeting as an excuse to promote their own self interests at the expense of the concept of serving viewers as opposed to shareholders. Given the dearth of originality in ITV’s entire output, no wonder people are voting with their remote controls – after all, it’s possible that ITV has reached its sell by date. BBC-1’s recent relative popularity just goes to show that ITV cannot blame the Playstation or the Internet or SkyDigital for its poor performance, it can only blame itself.

The bets are now on to see if the programme commissioners at ITV wake up in time to ‘save the channel’ before it sinks into oblivion, and if anyone think that’s stupid concept and “it will never happen”, take a look at the declining ITV(1) viewing figures; if they were not slavishly following their own misconceptions the relative decline would have stopped by now.

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