Saturday night at the 19th Hole, live on BBC One

The economic health of the nation can be measured through many means. The moral health of the nation, what the Nepalese call the measure of national happiness, is far less easily quantifiable. If you’re a tabloid journalist or a middling member of an ITV daytime chat show with a space to fill, though, take one icon of the British high-street and watch the comment sections fill up with thousands of words time, after time, after time.

Across the country, women of a certain age and income level treat M&S as economists treat the daily updates from the ONS (let us avoid the rare moments of men being concerned with Marks, because that did necessitate me searching for the words “Jeremy Paxman” and “underpants”). Confidence in the High Street (future of which should be a future blog post) seems to rest on whether every element of “Marks'” is doing very well or tanking horribly. The first whiff of an unsavoury gusset gets the Fashion columns pouring out into the Business section within ten minutes. There’s no stopping presenters of moving wallpaper television from coming over all “Massacre of first born in Damascus (Reuters)” when the opportunity arises to ask “Is the Per Una range completely ignorant about the shape of an English woman’s bust?”

Consumer confidence can be measured from the reaction to “Which” magazine tutting at an M&S trifle in much the same way as earthquakes off the Pakistani coast can be picked up in California. It is precisely because they occupy such a cosy place by the fire that the middle classes use them as both stable go-to confidence boost and easy tut-tut country’s gone to the dogs easy target. Empires fall, politicians waffle, the middle classes have an opinion on M&S maxi dresses.

If ‘cosy’ is the M&S brand as well as its place on the “High Street”, what to choose as its equivalent elsewhere in British life? I think we all know the answer to that…

Placed in the television schedules as something of an unbreakable habit, a comfort in tough times, and guaranteed hangover cure (for the Sunday repeats, and not always successfully), “Match of the Day” is analogue football in a digital world. And that’s not necessarily stinging criticism, just as shaking your head at the sight of four-dozen canary yellow polo necks is not criticism of M&S. As wiser people have commented many times before, “MotD” has not been designed to compete with SKY or ESPN or BT Sport; nor are any of the pundits required to pick apart each move or tactic beyond anything accepted as a talking point or controversy. If “MotD” is considered ‘safe’ then that’s the programme doing its job…

……And yet here’s the “but”. Roy Hodgson is to appear as a guest/pundit this weekend. Promising? Probably not, and nor ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, or anything else like that. The “safety” of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme has long since wallowed in ‘complacency’, and that’s never good. For many years the show has struggled to wander out of the golf club/old boy’s network approach to sports broadcasting, stuck in an era of “World of Sport” and “Grandstand”. There’s ‘safe’ (nodding) and there’s ‘safe’ (shaking head).

“MotD” is the closest most blokes have to M&S; that safe, secure, not always agenda setting constant that for generations would always be guaranteed to provide just what you need at no great cost. Unfortunately, and just as with M&S and their dodgy autumn/winter collections, the BBC has considered ‘no great cost’ to mean more than ‘analysis of the weekend games’. With the Hansen/Lawro dream team, that ‘autumn/winter’ collection was always more ‘permanent winter’. When not content with sounding utterly indifferent to the continuing existence of football as a sport at all, Mark Lawrenson was being picked apart on line for failing to predict any weekend games to within 15 goals or so of reality. And yet he, and professional grump Alan Hansen, brought home the five/six-figure pay checks.

Nobody wants “MotD” to undergo too radical a change, least of all the casual fans/viewers who make up the majority of viewing figures. There are so many post-match analysts out there – not just SKY with their massive fuck-off television screens but blogs, podcasts and Twitter feeds – that the BBC knows nothing good would come from wholesale changes in one go, for just like The Daily Mail with Ed Miliband, going all out to prove a point often ends up looking horrific. Changing “MotD” into the Football Ramble in one leap would alienate, not attract.

That said, the BBC should have learned about the dangers by now (Colin Murray, in general, Colin Murray wine-tasting specifically). What many critics want is the end of the BBC’s very smug and often blatantly lazy old boy’s ties. Whilst not stepping into Keys/Gray territory of over familiar chumminess, the Beeb still manages to create an atmosphere of members club bars, the FA itself represented somewhere in the background, ready to cough and splutter if something approaching direct criticism were to drift across somebody’s lips.

M&S survives by understanding the trends of the day, and then suiting them exactly to their audience’s needs. Their televisual comrade appears unable to do that, either not getting anything changed at all, or making too much of a leap in one go. Being bold and brave means picking pundits from outside the usual cast, allowing more controversial opinions, particularly pointed towards the FA, avoiding the ‘golf club’ presenter/pundit pairings every week to encourage different views.

Consumers flit to where they feel most comfortable. Neither institution, M&S or “MotD”, need to change at all, for loyalty will always win out. But not adapting at all took Woolworths and HMV to the sword, and if the BBC insists that even tinkering might be too much of a change, then I suspect there’s sharpening knives just around the corner.

All that glistens

The BBC has been on the wrong side of soap opera publicity this month (only one week in), with mass-appeal programmes attracting the wrong kind of focus and commentary. The soap suds were well and truly whipped with perennial gloom half hour Eastenders, with its cot-death storyline curtailed following 6,000 complaints about the additional narrative element involving a ‘baby swap’ and mental instability.

Across on Radio 4, where listeners are often less likely to take to the complaints forms and Basildon Bonds unless it is absolutely necessary, the ‘everyday tales of rural folk’ took a leftfield (see what I did there, geddit, etc) turn with the death of Nigel Pargetter. Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer coined the phrase “Shock Armitage to the Core”, inevitably reduced to the Twitter hahstag “sattc”, to describe the storyline which was kept under wraps (unusually for a soap opera) until the moment it happened. When it did happen, all the usual soap opera tropes were there – I listened waiting for someone to say “Please, Nigel, don’t go onto the slippy, icy roof at night in a storm, for you might fall off”, and I wasn’t that disappointed…

Both these examples show the attraction of, and problems with, soap operas as mass-market audience magnets. That Eastenders has felt the need to run with a cot-death storyline for prime-time television is a topic for another debate; that they chose to include a baby-swap element indicates part desperation (like it or not, the Beeb has to participate in the ratings war) and part acknowledgement of the hyper-reality of soap storylines (real life is never as interesting for those who don’t live in a street or square with weekly murders, affairs and morality price-wars).

The Eastenders storyline is now being wound up faster and sooner than originally intended The ‘power of the ‘net’ didn’t quite force the producers hand, though interestingly it was the founder of Mumsnet who led the charge against the BBC with claims of inappropriate sensationalism. How many television programmes have now been subjected to social media users running campaigns and groups for or against specific elements of output? Should producers be concerned by this viewer power revolution? I am reminded of Mark Gatiss’ remark about live-tweeting during television programmes; it’s best not to watch what viewers are saying in real time to broadcast, it’d drive a writer mad.

So is this just ‘Points of View gone feral’? Certainly it seems that way for Radio 4 and The Archers, where the death of Nigel has been called ‘an anti-climax’ after weeks of publicity and heavy hints in newspapers (though Twitter and Facebook did play a part in whipping up suggestions for what exactly would cause Ambridge to shake to its core, running from a gun rampage to a character turning on the radio, hearing the Archers themetune and causing a time-vortex across central Cambridgeshire).

Soaps are very rarely failures for channels with the time and investment to keep them high profile. When Channel 5 launched, they did so with a soap (“Family Affairs”) and when that soap began to falter, killed off the main family for an effective relaunch. ITV capitalised on kitch being cool with relaunched (and dream sequenced) Crossroads. For the BBC, Eastenders and Archers are testament to quality and patience, loyalty and treating audiences with as much respect as possible. Why these recent surges in criticism matter is because the last point has not been upheld, like a contract not being respected.

For the Beeb, shaky confidence in soaps matters. These two incidents should recall, however briefly, the one instance of Auntie getting it completely wrong, the launch and plane-into-mountain collapse of Eldorado in 1993.

This ‘sun, sea and scandal’ soap (opening credits somewhat truncated here bumped Wogan off the schedules and was promoted across the BBC as the best soap launch since Eastenders in 1985. To cut costs (it was filmed entirely on location), producers used untried actors and simplistic filming techniques. The results were disastrous. It would close its doors in 1994, a million or plenty thrown away, leaving the Corporation red-faced through shame rather than sun-tan.

Notable elements of the Eldorado disaster are legendary. The international cast had many who could not speak fluent English, so were given entire scenes (often 3 or 4 minutes long) of dialogue in their native tongue without subtitles. To help viewers in the UK understand what was going on, contrived scenes appeared later on with laden dialogue (“So, Swedish girl, you are having problems with your partner, maybe you should tell me all about it before your next Swedish-language scene with him?”

What is still known as the ‘Eldorado effect’ hampered production. If you want to know what a swimming pool sounds like through a boom mic, watch old episodes, as the lapping water would be louder than the actor’s voice. Filming in bare villas, not studios, meant echoing footsteps and laughter sounded unusually flat, or lifeless.

Ultimately, the programme finished because viewers did not feel engrossed in the lives of the ‘everyday folk’ soaps need for success. Ex-pats living abroad, shacking up with 17-year old girls or having a bemused Spanish speaking waitress as a live-in lover at your exclusive villa, did not give the mid-90s soap audience (generally those suffering from the recession) much attraction to tune-in.

Pre-internet campaign groups, all pro-Eldorado viewers could do was demonstrate outside Television Centre demanding Alan Yentob’s head on a stick. There was little sympathy.

For Eastenders today, the cot-death storyline will bruise the brand but not hoik the show off the screens anytime soon. The BBC has forgotten about the core audience now being joined by a multitude of on-line keyboard warriors ready for action whenever outrage is afoot. Eldorado was badly written, terribly acted and too well-meaning to be saved. But nothing is too big to fail, as we are learning to our costs. It’s only television, granted. If it’s not scaring too many horses (unless it’s supposed to, like the Archers or Emmerdale), just switch off…

BBC Three is top-slice lamb

James and Rupert Murdoch are increasing their attacks against rival media and things will not get very pretty between now and the next UK general election in the summer of 2010. In the eyes of News International, the BBC is ripe for picking apart, not least because of the amount of “free” services from on-line news to original childrens’ programming for an ultimate cost to the consumer far below that of a typical Sky subscription package. If the senior Murdoch’s threatened court action against copyright fraud is successful the “news” tab on the top of peoples’ iGoogle pages will be one of the most high profile casualties in this fight against media rivals.

For fans of the BBC, the talk of “top slicing” the licence fee sends shivers up the spine. Conservative leader David Cameron has allowed his Shadow Cabinet to talk freely about selling off bits of the Beeb, or to assist commercial rivals with monies taken from the TV Licence hitherto reserved to keeping the BBC delivering its programmes on television, radio, and through the online platforms such as iPlayer. Expect the now passionately Tory (and Murdoch owned) Sun newspaper to increase its support for asking Auntie to give up the money underneath her mattress for the good of commercial health in the country; first to go “part subscription” will undoubtedly be iPlayer, followed by the inevitable consolidation of regional radio stations.

Even as a fan of the BBC, I accept that the digital age means all of the current certainties of broadcasting must now exist with question marks overhead. Little things seen as somewhat inconsequential at the time – such as the internet only broadcast of the England v Ukraine qualifier – could well be important footnotes in the history of broadcasting come the ending of analogue television in 2012. That the BBC are somewhat “shielded” from the stormwinds of commercial factors will come under more scrutiny than ever; the superteam of an angry Murdoch and vote-chasing Cameron will combine against the Corporation like never before.

One potential victim in all this that may be accepted in the fight to save the BBC in its current form, with a licence fee pretty much (if not entirely) untouched and the online services free from subscription. If anything has to go, why not BBC Three?

The former BBC Choice (not “BBC Quirk”) has struggled to win over any of its critics. The current programming is a muddle of sensationalism (“Too Fat To Hunt”, “World’s Strictest Parents”), and the kind of instant repeats expected from ITV 3 or Dave, such as the seemingly endless reruns of Doctor Who and Merlin. I am a huge Doctor Who fan (Second Doctor, since you ask), but even I have to wonder if there is any point in watching the Daleks in Manhattan every third week. American Dad and Family Guy should never have been shunted off BBC Two in the first place, and when stripped of all the above BBC Three barely seems worthy of a channel at all. If the Corporation wants to support new talent in acting or writing, allow BBC Four to run a series on it.

The BBC will struggle enough to justify the worryingly described “black music station” 1Xtra when the time comes to do so; in the meantime it has to check if the millions spent on BBC Three really do mean value for money. When it’s possible to split its schedule to other channels so easily it becomes clear that there’s a Murdoch sniper trained right at its head. On a multi-channel platform against Sky One or Virgin1, the loser is BBC Three. Sadly any talk of “top slicing” will mean accepting sacrificing something from the Corporation’s network: BBC Three would seem to be the lamb its best to serve up in an attempt to keep either Murdoch or Cameron away from any tastier cuts.