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….

2 Big 2 Fail

So, how did we all feel about Match of the Day 2, then?

Six footie seasons ago, the BBC launched its ‘laid back’ version of ancient highlights programme Match of the Day. Professional Baggie Adrian Chiles – the archetypal ‘mate down the pub’ – made the programme his own. Not as ‘gentleman’s club’ as the older MOTD long ago became, the BBC Two version soon grew into vital viewing. If “Goals on Sunday” had the devil’s share of viewing figures, MOTD2 took most of the workplace banter.

Chiles’ well publicised sidestep to ITV left vacant the most prized sofa spot in sports presenting. Almost all available presenters would eventually be linked to the post. (Except Manish, obviously. Never Manish.)

The spot would go to Colin Murray, the enthusiastic Norn Iron “Fighting Talk” chair for Radio 5 Live and former Europa League anchor for Five. The reaction was, largely, popular. Formerly a Radio 1 DJ, Murray was known and respected for a wide sporting knowledge with wit and humour. MOTD2 seemed to have chosen well. Its first episode was shaky, with animated sections and faux-archive camera effects being criticised for being ‘gimmicks’. Murray was still himself, though, and for all the skills required to front highlights programming, he was doing okay. He is not “the mate down the pub”, more “bloke you talk to in the queue at the work canteen”, and that was enough to keep the faith.

Yesterday, however, the patience given to him by many viewers finally snapped. Having forgiven him for the ‘pulling matches out of a paper bag’ stunt, those who were ready to give one last chance flicked over to “Top Gun” or the paused “300” on the other side. His crime? A contrived ‘wine tasting’ segment with David Ginola and Lee Dixon, the latter looking utterly bemused while the former wore the same weary expression from the moment Murray tried to poke fun at his pronunciation of the word ‘pitch’. (It lead to a dud joke about ‘peaches’, the kind of humour which died when ‘Allo ‘Allo was cancelled).

It’s not as though the ‘wine tasting’ of itself was enough to lose patience. Murray’s take on MOTD2 has been to introduce too much forced banter and jokes, in the same way of the poor souls left floating around the sinking “Mock The Week”. Having moulded “Fighting Talk” into a gem of a show, vital listening for anyone about to set off for the match, hopes were high for how much Murray magic would transfer to the screen. Given the nature of the show – its time slot means many viewers would rather just have the footie to watch before heading to a work night sleep – anything delaying the action seems irritating. Chiles wasn’t exactly without banter and humour, he was able to balance the want of the viewer with the constraints of the format. The BBC cannot afford much more than extended highlights, and with the licence fee being frozen for 2 years there’s not much left for any live football coming to Auntie in the foreseeable. A show like MOTD2 shouldn’t be a straight-faced newsreel, Sky Sports News without the rolling newsfeed, it should neither appear as though two different programmes are fighting for prominence. MOTD2 is not “Something for the Weekend”.

With Chiles gone, and Murray unlikely to be transferred so early in the season, the producers have a choice. They could slowly transform the programme, stage by stage, into refreshed ‘highlights with quirks’ in the hope of persuading doubters to come round to the idea. Or they undo the damage with a sudden reversal to “Chiles mode”. Whichever happens, one fact remains very central. SKY are eager to claim as much football rights as they legally can; a damaged “Match of the Day” brand reduces any opportunity for the BBC to argue the case for keeping hold of even basic highlights packages.