1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1816

I used to work in television in its early days, a time when it was actually “fun” to be there. A few years ago I published online my experiences of those times. Sadly, today I have all but given up looking at television. Why?

All during my life I have had a desire to have high standards, either in a personal way (such as listening to good music, excellently reproduced), or doing one’s work as best as one can. It gives me a lot of pleasure to watch a good film or a television drama or a documentary well produced. Indeed the impact of a programme (or any product for that matter) is enhanced, even if only subconsciously, if it is well crafted.

Sadly, it is my opinion that this is a rarity on television these days. Standards of production and presentation have fallen drastically over the past decade or so and, seemingly, are continuing to fall.

Today’s production people are apparently unaware of the basic ‘grammar’ of production, be it film or TV.

Example: If you fade out a scene, then you should fade in to the next one. But what happens so often is that after a fade out, the next shot abruptly cuts in. This gives a jolt to the viewer. If that is intended, such as in a moment of dramatic tension, then fine, but otherwise it is just wrong.

All normal camera shots should be straight, with the horizon level (that is the way we experience life). The camera should be tilted to produce non-level shots only if that makes a definite point, such as when the on-screen character is experiencing a momentary imbalance of the mind. A good case is in David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter”. Here, when the character played by Celia Johnson has lost her lover, she is tempted to throw herself in front of an on-coming train; the camera tilts at this time, slowly levelling again as her moment of madness passes. But too frequently these days the camera has been tilted for no apparent reason, making cars appear to drive on a road at 45 degrees, ships sail on a tilted sea, interviewees shown at crazy angles. Why?

The incorrect use of ultra close-ups is disturbing. One so often cannot see the on-screen character properly, as the camera is too close, cutting off the top – and often also the bottom – of the head or face. If this closeness happened in real life, it would be (a) unacceptable, and (b) probably unhygienic. What these camera people do not seem to have grasped is that these days the viewing public no longer watches television on a small 12 inch screen, so that close-ups of this nature are completely unnecessary. They have, it would seem, no conception of ‘headroom’.

The presentation of television programmes is also deplorable. It used to be that sensible intervals would occur between programmes, allowing the viewer to ‘unwind’ from, say, a drama production. Nowadays it would seem that even a brief moment of silence is anathema to TV staff. Every microsecond has to be filled with noise of one sort or another. Even within programmes the use of unnecessary, and in a lot of cases inappropriate, music under dialogue has increased alarmingly in recent times. There have been moments when it has become difficult to hear what a person is saying, and the poor viewer maybe reduced to shouting at the screen to ‘get rid of the ***** music’. I have seen it put forward that the people responsible for this ‘no silence at all’ mentality are those who when children walked around with a transistor radio glued to their ears.

This impatience on the part of producers and presenters has also resulted in programmes not being allowed to come to their intended end, but must be interrupted by irritating, unwanted, and totally unnecessary ‘voiceovers’ during the end credits. The end music is an integral part of a programme, bringing it to a conclusion as the director intended, not to be ‘hijacked’ on transmission. One ‘excuse’ given has been that there isn’t time to announce things ‘after’ a programme! The answer to that is painfully obvious – plan the schedules so that there IS time. Or is that too fundamental?

The subject of on-screen logos, Channel Identifiers or ‘DOGs’, which actually constitute deliberate continual picture interference, is too painful to more than mention in passing.

Independent Television (ITV), once a worthy alternative to the BBC, has been all but ruined by a misguided outlook on the part of various governments that a ‘lighter touch’ from the regulator was needed. Thus the high standards of the former ITA and IBA have been seriously eroded, the present (and soon to be replaced) ITC being an ineffective toothless nonentity. Thus TV channel providers are allowed to almost ‘get away with anything’, dropping standards disastrously.

In my opinion, both Digital TV and Widescreen are the two worst things that have ever happened to television. They need not have been. Widescreen should and can be good, but it ‘has’ to be WIDEscreen, not ‘letterbox’, which quite defeats itself. Existing analogue viewers should not have had to suffer a second-rate service wherein the widescreen picture is shrunk to varying extent to form black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, thus giving a continual impression that ‘something is missing’. One might be tempted to say that there is ‘something missing’ – intelligence on the part of the perpetrators.

Production people have gone overboard with widescreen, mistakenly thinking that ‘everything’ must be in widescreen whether it really is or not. Thus we have the totally unforgivable situation where a programme using archive material, mostly in standard ratio (4 x 3), is mercilessly cropped, cutting off the top and bottom of the original picture, and then expanding what is left to fill the widescreen format, thus ruining the showing of so much valuable and important archive shots. They do not seem to realise that some programme subjects are just not suited to a widescreen format.

Digital television suffers from a similar mindset, in that because ‘it is possible to do it, then it must be done’. In this instance it is the ability to compress the signal. An analogue TV signal, with good reception, is ‘pure’, but a digital signal has been compressed to ‘conserve bandwidth’ which means getting more channels into a given space. The consequence of this is that the quality is downgraded, with often-noticeable results called ‘artefacts’.

And the same is true of digital radio versus FM radio. But here, digital techniques have been applied to the analogue original. Over the last two decades, amplitude compression has been used on all FM radio channels. At its worst case, it makes all music to appear equally loud, there are no quiet passages left, thus making nonsense of serious music – and even though BBC Radio 3 uses the least amount of compression, it is still too much. It means that no one gets it good any more, and gives a serious listener ‘audio fatigue’.

Why has all this happened? My own view is that it stems from the reduction in education standards in the 1960s and 1970s. Children educated in those years are now in business, many working in and controlling television.

What is the answer to all this? Probably it would need the removal of all present staff in television, to be replaced by people of integrity who put quality of service first. As this is not going to happen, my best option is to forego today’s television, and use my existing library of old programmes, plus DVDs of good films. By not seeing the many faults and flaws, I shall not get annoyed. So it will be goodbye to television – and you will not be missed.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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