Channel hopping, on one leg…

You could hear Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq snapping their pencils in exhausted anger in response to BAFTA creating “Reality and Constructed Factual” as an award category some years ago. Oh well, one half of the still slightly unfathomable couple must have said to the other, there goes sharp satire towards THAT part of broadcasting, have we done sports television yet?

Perhaps ever-so-but-not-quite less now than in recent years, television is all about the specific ‘concept’ show, one specific strand left tied between two posts only just close enough together to avoid snapping, but far enough apart to allow it to disappear if viewed from a certain angle. BBC Two bloody loves a ‘concept show’; n just one genre they’ve enjoyed asking professional chefs to cook for the Queen, not-so-professional chefs to cook for each other, and complete amateurs to cook for Andi Peters and Christine Hamilton. From these ‘concepts’ ripple out variants which don’t quite work but fit the bill, sort of tribute band versions, such as ITV’s doomed attempt at making ‘Great British Menu’. (“ITV’s doomed attempt to…” could become a meme, actually, if it isn’t already.)

BBC Two has also given us an 114-year old women (give or take) sewing LIVE and current cult fave ‘Great British Bake Off’, which promises and almost always delivers UNCENSORED FLOUR SIFTING at before 9pm. Scandalous.

From the ripples out to the farthest reaches of television, the ‘concept’ show continues almost but not quite unwatched. SKY One, bless it, bought the rights to “Project Catwalk”, where a dozen gay men and two kooky women bitchersize to-and-fro in between occasional shots of LIVE SEWING. Channel 4, for reasons nobody can fathom, continue providing airtime to Middle Class Big Brother ‘Come Dine With Me’, and both Five has a strange delight with domestic and bought-in ‘concept’ programmes showing people learning to take a holiday with strangers and F-list celebs and that sort of thing. It’s a wonder, as many sane individuals ask every now and then, that they’ve not run out of shows to broadcast.

Well I think there’s a good number of programme ideas left for “Production Concept Architects”, or whatever BBC Media City types are called this week, to put inside their thought-pods. I have not been influenced by ‘Sex Box’, the Channel 4 red-triangle nostalgia fest in which two couples are interviewed having just shagged in an opaque box. (I seem to remember Vice magazine doing something similar if not identical, more than once, as nothing is new under the sun.). Laudable, Channel 4? I understand the principle behind the programme – for many viewers of sex on-line via small boxes with the volume down the only questions asked after a fuck usually consists of ‘Oh yea, you like that don’t you?’ Not entirely convinced, though, that putting documentary clothes around “The Sex Inspectors” makes ‘Sex Box’ automatically valid or credible.

Anyhoo ‘Sex Box’ has not got me thinking, as I said, about a 6-part Channel 5 ‘concept’ show where three couples are taught a different sex position every week for the chance to appear on Television X [proprietor: Mr R Desmond]. No, instead, I think BBC Two has just the right gap in its schedules to do away with cookery, learning to conduct an orchestra and giving floppy-haired nature presenters the opportunity to drop Manic Street Preachers lyrics into stock footage of an owl being torn to shreds, for the broadcast of “Writers Block”, a 28-or-so episode reality-and-constructed-factual winter warmer in which budding writers, poets and EMO-RUBY (or someone like her) must go from scrawling “No Milk Today” outside the house every morning to a novella just in time for a Christmas Day dramatisation after Brenda’s speech. Tie-in NaNoWriMo and you’ve got the BBC roping in the “Twilight” fandom who spend 20 days writing “If Only I Was……whatever the girl is called in it for the purposes of this bit Brenda?” before calling it a day because NOBODY IS GOING TO TURN ME INTO EMO RUBY or whatever.

“Writers Block” goes straight to the heart of the BBC’s argument that Auntie is all about brains and not beauty, intelligence over people having sex in a box or being shouted at by Davina. Learn to write poetry having been forced into screaming choice words at “Eggheads” – surely it’s a winning production on that alone? It’s very Radio 4, yes, but if you can tolerate “Quote Unquote” and “Poetry Please” then you can put up with 5×26 minutes every week of a pop-up restaurant owner from Hoxton speak-singing in front of John Barrowman and Sophie Ellis-Bexter, surely?

Television relies on making new things out of very old ideas; there’s nothing in “Strictly” that looks particularly different from 1970s and 1980s variety shows, for example. The ‘concept’ show has provided modern viewers with some must-see classics, only these can disappear as fast as they come. What nobody wants is constant reliance on the tired format – see “The X Factor” struggle, see “Come Dine With Me” turn into in-joke hell. If there’s something remotely different to experiment with, I say go the heck with it. Tune in to watch “Writers Block” on BBC Two, it’s the BBC Four show you always wanted in a format you’d be too British about to complain over. Sounds…..whatever the word is….I’ll do better next week, honest, don’t evict me….

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closing the broomcupboard

Tell that aardvark it’s a wrap…

As part of the BBC’s race to the bottom, following the Coalition’s six-year Licence Fee freeze, there was a glut of announcements made yesterday which saw knives slashed across Auntie’s output (or if you wish to be more brutal, Auntie’s face. Her loyal, service providing face).

From BBC 3 and 4 goes much of their original drama and BBC 2 sees repeats increase. Whether BBC 3 had any to begin with is a point for another thread, perhaps, although even my pro-BBC stance tends to waver a bit in the face of the channel which gives us “Snog Marry Avoid” and “Nympho Gyppos in Changing Room Hell”.

The bigger and biggest headlines of the day came in the gush of nostalgia from journos rushing to pay tribute to ‘Blue Peter’, following the confirmation that the programme would be switched from BBC 1 to CBBC. Former presenters came to bash the decision as anti-family. In addition to the demise of ‘Blue Peter’, flagship news package ‘Newsround’ is also on its way to the digital platforms, leaving the traditional post-school, pre-homework slot (or as it was known in my house, post-school, pre-SNES-all-night-homework-later) to the likes of “Great Antique Hunt”, “Great British Menu” and “Great Big Country Homes Bought by Great Big Comfortable Families with Great Big Marriage Problems We Can Only Hint Towards in the Voice-Overs”. The switch from BBC “mainstream” to “digital” was reported in very traditional terms, a kind of “analogue is best” attitude which no longer fits very well in an era when almost all British television regions no longer have analogue signals. If there was anything about the coverage which stank a bit, it was the whiff of anti-BBC pong that often seeps through any news story like this. Oh, the media says, and usually the Daily Mail for all that may surprise you, another nail in the coffin of traditional Britain!

It’s worth taking a much wider view on this. In common with most people racing towards middle age, I remember a time when “children’s television was much better than today.” We all do. Our parents remembered their television upbringing, limited as it was, having much less glitz, glamour and miming pop performances as our generation did, and the current generation are unlikely to consider “Going Live!”, “The Raccoons” or “Byker Grove” as examples of a better age. However, and I say this as an unashamed 90s nostalgist, there is a case to be made against holding on to a dedicated late-afternoon children’s television slot and all which comes connected with it. As much as it hurts every generation to admit it, society does tend to move on when you’re just in a position to consider it a scandal when it does so. Each generation has its “Oh, no, they’re not!” moment.  For some, it was the axing of “Top of the Pops”, for others “Pick of the Pops”, and for this generation, it’s…..

….Actually, that’s a point. What has been axed? Is ‘Grange Hill’ still going?

Former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Anthea Turner is quoted in the Daily Mail as thinly criticising the move from presenters you could name to complete unknowns. The age I grew up in saw the golden age of the show – from Mark Curry and Yvette Fielding in the 80s through to Konnie Huq and Simon Thomas as I got to the end of high school. As nice as they might be in real life, I suspect the modern day presenters were stymied by the shift to multi-channel television, changes in attitude towards children’s television output, and a sudden lack of wider opportunities for cross-over/intra-channel appearances.  In short, most 21st century presenters of the show were their own Romana D’Annunzio’s, cursed to live their television existences as unknowns, curiosities on the sea of broadcasting history.

There are parts of my television upbringing which I would bring back to the screens had I the power: Saturday mornings should have the “Live & Kicking”s and “ITV Chart Show”s which were inexplicably lost to cookery shows around the time of the first digital switchovers. There point where practicality tips over to nostalgia is the dividing line where “entertaining” should always be  chosen over “instructing how to make restaurant style food to people holding hangovers in one hand and Coco Pops in the other.”

The BBC must be applauded for trying to save money under very testing circumstances. They’ve been forced to make cutbacks in the usual storm of criticism. The Morning Star calls the BBC “right-wing”, the Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “right-wing”, we all go round the mulberry bush. We’d all like to preserve our favoured bits of history in aspic – be it school days, holidays or the theme to “Going For Gold”. The Beeb is probably right, on balance, to shunt kids TV over to digital now that the platform is not so much of a graveyard anymore. Nobody likes to admit that they’re getting older, things were better in the old days, and songs used to have tunes in my day, don’t you know? There’s a greater problem with the BBC’s current list of announcements – shrinking BBC 4, hacking BBC radio to little pieces and neglecting original drama across all its channels. Let’s get into a rage for all the right reasons.

Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you’ve never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark’s The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it’s remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. If you’re worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast – the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation’s funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC’s enemies – if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to “Radio 3 with pictures”, twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn’t do ratings wars. “It’s your BBC!”, Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent – so whilst “The Thick of It” and “Getting On” did very well for Four, it will be more “Two Pints of Lager” and “The King is Dead” for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three “youth” angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending “60 Second News”, the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote – for all the wrong reasons – is “so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works.”

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as “Three verses Four” becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” don’t have to sit through “Newsnight” for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It’s the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. “Down with what the youth want!” cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. “It’s all just too vulgar”

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of “shock, awe, and celebrity” sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It’s not too much to say “It’s not exactly SKY One, is it?”. On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a ‘make under’ programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of “Eastenders” and “Little Britain”. On Wednesday there was a ‘secret wedding’ reality show and the film “Sliding Doors”. Tomorrow, an episode of “Total Wipeout” and a rerun of “EastEnders”.

But, wait. Go back a few days to “Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum”, in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a “life lesson reality show”. Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there’s “Good Will Hunting”. Not exactly “The Hangover II”.

Despite its brash logo and ‘street’ outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I’d choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit “Wallander”. I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there’s not a 24-hour “T4 Channel”? It just wouldn’t stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and “The Killing”, Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge – though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren’t exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I’m a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. “Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!” at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy – the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery – is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be “top sliced”. Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all – to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock….but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.