What is television for?

Peter Fincham (ex- Controller of BBC1) asks his (former) peers, via the Guardian, what television is for. Which is what Paxman asked in his MacTaggart lecture at Edinburgh this year. The replies make for depressing reading.

Not because the respondents are wrong, nor thoughtless. But rather because their replies are careful, considered, enthusiastic, and positive. They say exactly what one would want them to say; that television is there to entertain us, yes, but also to challenge, inspire, fascinate, surprise, and so on.

We also know that commissioning editors talk the same language – they actively seek the challenging, the offbeat, the radical.

So… where does it all go wrong? How can these thoughtful and capable people end up producing the schedules we see, and the programmes we moan about not wanting to watch?

The answer, of course, is that it’s often not the programme-makers that pick the dross, it’s The System. And I mean that not in a buck-passing way, but in a really big way.

The System of TV goes like this: Thou Shalt Make Money (commercial channels), or else Thou Shalt Make Relevant Programmes (public service). In both cases, The System grades the results by means of ratings. That is, the only measure of success is sheer bulk of audience.

Commissioners can rail against this all they want, but if they don’t deliver ratings winners, they’re out. Such is the reality of a mass audience medium; the mass audience is what matters, and thus we – the mass audience – are collectively to blame for all the ills of The System.

If we didn’t watch the dross we subsequently complain about, it wouldn’t get made. It really is that simple.

There are, as I see it, only two solutions to the problem of The System:

  1. Switch off. Simply don’t watch the stuff you don’t like. The System will notice in the end, if you hold your nerve and enough people do it.
  2. Find a different way of measuring impact.

I’m slightly surprised that, for all the interactive TV escapades of the last ten years, I’ve never seen a channel-wide ‘please rate the programme you just watched’ feature. And let’s not even get started on, say, having the red button text your mates to let them know what you’re watching.

Can TV learn from Digg and Twitter? Hell, yes. Moreover, it has to learn, and fast, or the people who know how to game The System will take over from Fincham’s respondents, the ones who know how to make the TV we actually want.

Personally, I fear it’s already too late.

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