Wall street crash 

4 May 2009 tbs.pm/1052

Broadcast Now: C4 not up the viewers’ Street

There seems to be an endemic problem with programme commissioning nowadays, and it appears to revolve around the types of programming that make it to air. Perhaps broadcasters have spent too much time wedded to stereotypical conceptions in relation to the types of factual programming in particular that seem to be expected nowadays.

On top of this you have independent programme makers formulating and pitching ideas that they feel will garner the strongest acceptance amongst the broadcasters, hence the whole process turns into an echo chamber that’s somehow connected to a widget factory managed by a league of accountants.

The ultimate blame for all of this however still rests with the channel controllers since programme commissioning appears to consistently operate within narrow parameters based on what they/the broadcasters seem to feel that the public wants to watch combined with the requirement to do this for as little cash as possible.

Case in point being a new series that debuted last night entitled “My Wall Street”. Put simply, people who just happened to live in a street called “Wall Street” were asked their views on the economy, so based on this supposition you could theoretically just end up with 40-odd minutes’ worth of “vox-pops” combined with very little ‘hard’ analysis.

Although I saw a promo for this particular programme it seemed an extremely poor concept to me personally therefore I gave it a miss, and it now appears that I wasn’t alone in making such a judgement since only 795,000 viewers actually bothered to watch this attempt to capture the mood of the nation.

And this filled up an slot between 9pm and 10pm.

Incidentally I’m not suggesting that Channel 4 should be chasing ratings at this point; Channel 4 was at its very best at a time when programmes were being commissioned purely to serve a specific purpose as opposed to attracting viewers for the benefit of advertisers.

When you discard the need to satisfy advertisers and accountants, you usually end up with programmes that are much more tightly focused and in turn become far less compromised in relation to their subject matter, especially when there’s little repetition employed for the alleged benefit of informing viewers with short attention spans.

Real substance seems to be a property that is now increasingly absent outside a handful of programmes on Channel 4, and even Channel 4 News very occasionally appears to drop the ball when it comes to factual presentation. (However it is still much better than most other news bulletins when judged overall.)

Indeed some people have now gone as far to say that Channel 4 has become a shallow, self-centred, right-wing broadcaster that has an obsession with the superficial which makes Channel Five appear classy by comparison. Personally I wouldn’t go quite that far, but Channel 4 still seems to have badly lost its way in recent years.

You can see a case for a programme that samples the current mood amongst the general population in respect to the state of the economy, but devoting time to such an idea that’s packaged around a gimmicky presence that’s as flimsy as the financial instruments that conspired to humble major financial institutions around the world seemed very pointless.

Even if rather appropriate in an ironic sense.

And most ‘factual’ programmes seem to adhere to the same principles; I watched some of a programme two days back that attempted to tackle the subject of child prodigies, which showed both parents and children being interviewed using that same ‘disembodied narrative’ approach that is all too commonly used with modern ‘reality’-style documentaries.

The end result, although dealing with the subject matter responsibly and providing some insights into the lives of families, still gave the overall impression of devoting relatively little time to each subject seemingly in order to avoid boring the viewer, but when you end up with not very much substance you also have fewer reasons to carry on watching.

A large amount of factual programming has now become just a sequence of (occasionally) disembodied soundbites packaged around commercial breaks, with broadcasters ever-fearful of viewers getting bored and/or losing the plot. But when you end up with so little substance, it’s little wonder that the risk of apathy becomes all too great.

Especially when many of these programmes may be produced under very tight constraints both financially and in terms of their production timescale; when there’s little time for proper research combined with a fear of the consequences of making factual errors, the logical response is to try and cut down on the facts in order to make life easier.

As a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 really ought to be setting standards within the commercial media industry. And the same applies to the BBC, which can have high(er) standards when dealing with independent producers but has similar financial constraints affecting channels such as BBC Three.

It’s about time that all broadcasters woke up to the fact that the current presentational styles employed for factual programming are becoming tiresome and repetitive, and if people are switching off in their droves it’s because of an abject failure to cater for a real desire for something beyond the merely superficial.