Championship 10-is

As a stamp collecting teenager (oh come on, it’s obvious), I risked the wrath of philatelists by barely caring about the packets of┬ádefinitives bought from WH Smith each week while taking care to count each stamp from every country or even totting up the face value of every stamp, and compiling charts and lists. Borderline autism or generally bloke-ish behaviour? A little from column A and list B….and chart C….and all the rest of them.

At one time, “news aggregators” were the unassuming corner of the Internet, functional and a bit boring. What happened next appears to be contamination with whatever icky fluid comes out when the ‘net starts leaking; aggregating news and affairs is all very well, but what people really like are MEMES and GIFs and KITTENS. And lo did come website brands mixing snappy images and quirky copy, and now the laziest trick in print journalism has come to the Internet for good – and by the heavens does cyberspace love it when laziness from print actually works out for them. “Time Sink” websites, those created to promote their own writers’ versions of comedians snarking “What’s THAT about?” over two pages, now make up most Facebook and Twitter feeds, hitting all the usual buttons for general consumption on a lazy office day or dull commute.

From the bog-book to the browser, “time sink” websites have made the Top 10 list their own, and just as they’re the product of mixing education with entertainment, they’re proving successful in making waves in news reporting too. Well, not “reporting” per se, but both US and UK politics exist with a parallel commentary on-line fuelled by BuzzFeed and the like running gifs and video clips of politicians and protests, feeding an on-line audience with the highlights of a political issue without having to bother with all the formality of television news or newspaper copy. Add to that video accounts, such as WatchMojo, and it appears the fastest growing market on-line is chart countdowns.

BuzzFeed aims to become more involved with news and current affairs in the coming years, which bodes well for British politicos preparing for 2015. It has already spread far from listing ten funny pictures of cats into such Facebook favourites as inspirational quotes and modified National Geographic style photographs. It can, and will, only grow bigger as the power of the easily consumed, rapidly forgotten list site stretches beyond the boundaries of the Internet. Watch how the tabloid press adopts the practices of BuzzFeed – and how the broadsheets ape Wired or Mashable with “click along for the next photo, what do you mean advertising revenue?” model of article construction.

The growing popularity of the list article and the “time sink” sites that use them may fade, if the internal battle between informative article and Internet feature is won by the latter. Sites such as Mental Floss and Cracked have amazing engagement figures from merely placing a link on Facebook, such ‘lazy clicks’ as happen in their thousands whenever people browse on their phones or tablets. What interests me is not so much the reduction of so much information into chunks, but how American sites have cornered the market so rapidly. All the main players – from Mashable to Cracked – are American, and ‘news aggregators’, where this all started, are mostly American too. Is the trivia gene dying out in the UK or are Americans more tuned-in to the ‘net’s opportunities to make advertising revenue out of the instant attraction to top 10 lists and collated video clips?

Memo to self – draft ‘Top Ten Differences Between US and UK websites by tomorrow’

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….