Christmas has been cancelled 

29 October 2008

There’s no Christmas without TOTP

Put away the tinsel and pack away the tree; Christmas 2008 has just been cancelled. And it’s not because the TV shopping channels insisted on spoiling the festive feel much too early. Although reported by the tabloid press (notably The Sun) yesterday, this devastating fact now seems to be officially official.

This year, the Christmas Top of the Pops has been cancelled.

The real shame is that the last Christmas 2007 Top of the Pops special was actually a distinct improvement over Top of the Pops when it had finished as a series as well as the 2006 Christmas special, but you could have been forgiven for not watching it based on its previous track record.

Since Top of the Pops as a weekly show was axed, further changes have taken place in the singles sales market, most notably the sales of CD singles being restricted to specialist record stores after Woolworths stopped stocking them about three months ago. (And they are increasingly difficult to find even in outlets such as HMV.)

Of course this decline has primarily been blamed on the rise of music downloads, although CD album sales are still holding up well plus sales of the ‘Now’ compilation have rapidly increased as a result of potential CD single buyers having to purchase a copy instead of a CD single. Good news for EMI and the featured artists; not good for anyone else.

But a drop in interest can also be apportioned to the relative lack of music exposure on the main five terrestrial channels. Some have blamed this on the Top 40 singles chart becoming an anachronism, but that doesn’t explain why the commercial TV music channels persist with chart-based formats along the lines of “Judge Jules’s Top 30 Ibiza Anthems”.

So if the concept of a chart still holds water with a younger audience – or at least in the minds of media executives – what are the remaining obstacles that are holding up a rehabilitation of what was the nation’s favourite popular music programme for many years?

For one thing, certain BBC executives had a ‘death wish’ against Top of the Pops (it seems, regardless of its form) over many years, hence the ‘death’ slots given to the show opposite much stronger opposition on other channels coupled with a lack of promotion.

Andi Peters was tasked with performing a last-ditch ‘do or die’ resurrection of the show which failed spectacularly, bringing down his TV executive career with it (he could have potentially ended up being controller of BBC Three if he had succeded instead of Danny Cohen), and consigning the weekly dose of BBC chart rundown to the history books.

So whilst the show awaits its Russell T Davies, Top of the Pops was initially consigned to its TOTP2 spinoff (which seems to have faltered for various other reasons), and the pledge to maintain the Christmas specials has also now faltered after only one year.

There is still a place for popular music television on mainstream channels but the show needs to be as streamlined as possible and packaged to appeal to a larger audience than twentysomethings. If TMF feels that it can devote a chunk of its evening output to a Top 40 rundown (just like The Hits did before turning into 4Music), then there is a market out there.

Andi Peters’ revamp tried to target a fickle audience using a piecemeal package of ‘features’ and interviews, conveniently failing to notice that all of this had been unsuccessfully tried in the past. A failure to learn from the past is sadly all too common in modern broadcasting, and has perhaps been a key reason to the demise of the show.

The number of fortysomethings (and older) who listen to Radio 1 is still significant, and despite the recent criticism of Radio 1’s remit from the commercial sector, the appeal of popular music extends well beyond young people. Plus the other music shows that are currently on terrestrial TV tend to reflect more specialist and/or older audiences.

Top of the Pops can and will work again as a format; it survived over 40 years of musical and cultural changes therefore there’s no reason why it cannot succeed again without some love and care. Indeed it’s arguable that the UK’s whole musical heritage has suffered as a result, regardless of whether you want to watch it or not.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Monday 30 January 2023