ITV sophisticates 

3 September 2005

“TV has gone to the dogs!” This type of comment is hardly new; it is as old as ITV itself.

However, we seem to be in an era of celebrity- and reality-based formats, with endless home and garden make-over shows, more cookery formats than you can shake a stick of celery at, and ever more imaginative scenarios that involve putting ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) people in totally contrived scenarios just to see how they cope.

And I won’t even mention Channel 4’s annual two-month-long live broadcast from the House (no, not Westminster; think instead of Orwell’s 1984), which has now become as traditional a part of the summer schedules (and the tabloid press and gossip magazines) as Wimbledon.

The central charge against much of what is on television at the moment is that it is fodder for the heart and the emotions, not the head. Popstars, one of the first of the contemporary “talent” shows, yielded the group Hear’Say, which deserved to be shot as much for crimes against the apostrophe as for crimes against music. Mercifully, it duly folded some eighteen months later. Since then, we have had Pop Idol, X Factor and sundry others in a similar vein.

At least the talent shows could pay lip service to discovering and marketing groups and individuals with the ability to please the public. Some of the finds, such as Will Young and Gareth Gates, actually can sing. Although you have to question a system that lets someone like Kemal, who proved in the Big Brother house that he plainly can’t, get as far as the final eighty in Pop Idol.

The talent-spotting card cannot be shown for I’m a Celebrity… and its ilk. This format essentially involves putting minor (and often faded) celebrities in uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassing situations, giving them unpleasant tasks to do and inviting the viewer to revel in their discomfort. One is left with the impression that they only take part to give their image a much-needed (for them, if not anyone else) boost and remind the public that they’re still there.

These shows all have several elements in common. They’re cheap to make. As with any game show, the contestants are battling it out for a prize at the end. The programme makers do not have to pay expensive actors’ fees. They adhere to one well-established format or other, so do not require a screenplay or other creative input. And, crucially, they rely on lucrative audience participation.

But is any of this so bad? Since its inception, ITV has been popular because it has, to coin a phrase, given the audience what it wanted. It is a form of escapism, of entertainment. That it does not engage the thought process, or require the ability to process logic, does not make it television only for the less sophisticated viewer. In fact, some of the formulas are deceptively simple. If you put a group of ordinary people (i.e. not professional media performers) in unusual situations, their reactions can be quite revealing.

A contemporary example was to be found on Big Brother this year, concerning the highly charged, non-sexual (at least not overtly so) but very intense and almost homoerotic relationship between a gay hairdresser and a 1970s disco dancer. While the press focused its attention on the unrequited love angle, drawing parallels with the “bunny-boiler” scenario in the film Fatal Attraction, one of the bulletin boards had some rather intelligent conversations (yes, they do exist) suggesting that this odd couple could provide enough analysis for an entire social sciences course. It was indeed beyond the ability of Channel 4 to do any justice to analysing the implications of what was going on.

It is not just so-called reality television, though. ITV continues to show a range of drama and light entertainment, not much of which taxes the brain too hard. You don’t want it to, though. A lot of people watch television for entertainment, to get away from the realities of life. People are naturally voyeuristic. They like to know what other people are getting up to.

They also come home from work at night and moan about the boss, about that idiot at the morning meeting. Perhaps the feeling is mutual. What is interesting about soaps is that you are a fly on the wall at both ends, so to speak. You see what both parties are saying about the other. Some of the better reality TV formats allow you to eavesdrop on mutual distrust, bitching and back-stabbing, the only difference this time being that, far from acting to a script, what is being said is genuinely heartfelt.

None of this is to diminish the importance of television as a medium to inform and educate, even subliminally, as well as to entertain. So long as the powers-that-be have the will to require it, the main television channels will continue to pay at least some attention to this need. However, even intelligent, sophisticated viewers sometimes need, or want, the escapism that television provides, and some of the better programmes on the telly manage to surprise without even trying.

The last word on this goes to Daily Express columnist Vanessa Feltz, who was reminded of Samuel 1, 18-1: “And the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

She went on: “Who could have predicted that the unconsummated, allegedly one-sided passion between a hairdresser and a dancer would unite millions in incredulity and affection? Yet again, the Big Brother format delivers an unpredictable product which illuminates almost despite itself.” Better not let those dogs off the leash just yet.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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