Still a place for quality TV 

2 September 2006

It’s worth expanding on some points astutely made by Victor Lewis-Smith, writing in London’s Evening Standard recently (“Our brainless TV is going down the tube”, 29 August). In the article, he talked about Charles Allen presiding over “this precipitous decline in quality, ratings and profitability”.

ITV Eclipse

Well, there no dispute about the first two, but the day after Allen announced he was stepping down, we heard that ITV plc’s profits were up 12%. This is even more disturbing than if they had dropped, for if that had been the case, a degree of self-regulation would come into play, one hopes, to halt the slide. Not so, however, if profits are up. So lets look at both sides of this particular coin for a moment.

There are several explanations the chief executive of a TV company can give about why ad revenue and ratings are down, the primary one being the digital multichannel environment that today’s broadcasters inhabit, and the growth of internet media, all conspiring to spirit the audience, and thus the ratings, and thus the advertising income, away. If this was the complete answer, however, one would expect the situation to be worse in the United States, where the multiplication of channels has already happened and continues to this day. But there we find ABC announcing that their advertising income is in fact up, and apparently CBS’s is at least holding steady, to give just two examples. So can the fragmentation of the audience really account for ITV’s slide on its own? I would suggest that the jury is out at present.

But look at it from the other side and it really doesn’t matter anyway. Profits are up. If you are a company that makes money and happens to make television programmes (as opposed to the other way around, a comment probably attributable to Howard Thomas of ABC Weekend Television many years ago), then never mind the quality, feel the cash. Audiences and ad revenue are plummeting but the company is making more money. It can do this simply by making cheaper programmes. Like their radio equivalent, the phone-in – traditionally regarded as one of the lower forms of broadcasting – reality shows have the benefit that even if they employ exotic locations and the odd neo-celebrity, they are still extremely inexpensive compared to, say The Jewel In The Crown or a number of other of Denis Forman’s towering examples of what ITV companies can (or at least could) do when they put their minds to it. One is reminded of the excitement of the days when we were able, and prepared, “to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth” – and wish we still could.

ITV’s gain means our loss. Although one can happily claim that British broadcasters already successfully recycle their old programmes on numerous, generally consecutively-numbered channels, you surely cannot live solely on your history: you have to make some new programmes too (and hope that cash-strapped broadcasters, like the BBC, will not trash them as they did all too often in the past). Archives are created from the stuff of the present, not just the past, and to successfully exploit the archives you have to continue to create content that will be worth seeing again. And what’s the point of watching any season of Celebrity Love Island Wrestling again? While the BBC is doing quite a good job of making programmes that are worth future viewing, the same can hardly be said of ITV.

But if increased profits from ever-more-populist, but ever-less-popular ITV programming make for a depressing picture, look at what else is going on. Young people are turning from the TV to the Internet, as VLS points out. Obviously this does not offer the same experience – or at least, it doesn’t at the moment, because TV on a decent-sized screen needs much more bandwidth than the Net provides, even with the most efficient of data compression. And every time content providers step up the technical quality – to HDTV with surround-sound, to take a current example – the bandwidth requirement jumps a greater amount. This is not ‘convergence’, it’s the opposite: the bandwidth requirement is expanding faster than the increase in its provision.

So like the iconic iPod, the downloadable TV future is not as high quality as what we see today – at least not yet, and not for some time. But like the iPod owner who, contrary to popular belief, listens not only to highly-compressed music on the train or bus or in the car, but also, importantly, listens to a powerful hi-fi system at home playing back lossless CD-quality files from a home music server, the future TV viewer will on the one hand watch a news bulletin or music video on a tiny cellphone or iPod screen, but will go home to view hi-def movies and television programming on a big screen at 1080p with full surround-sound.

The future of television is not only smaller and scrappier, it’s larger and brighter, and both at the same time – and the latter, if not the former, needs quality programming with high production values. Channel Four knows how to do it; the BBC certainly knows how to do it. ITV needs to recall its lost past and remember how to do it too.

In addition, VLS is quite right when he notes that “television should learn to love the viewers it has”. These are the older viewers, with plenty of disposable income, who are not content with throw-away reality shows. They, too, want quality programming to watch on their hi-def TVs – the same programming that can be recycled indefinitely from the archives and recoup its investment more or less forever. The sooner television companies realise that, the better off viewers will be – however and whenever they choose to view it.

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