Saturday, 26 July 2014

When television on your doorstep is just wrong

The first eight years of my life were spent in the era of three channel TV, with BBC 1 offering shiny-floored glitz-and-glamour, BBC 2 seemingly offering a non-stop child-unfriendly diet of highbrow documentaries and ITV being the plethora of the great, the good, the awful and the downright odd.

For most of its life, ITV was a patchwork quilt of stations dotted up and down the country, each of them seemingly having their own speciality. Fast-forward to the present day and modern ITV is pretty much styled on those women's magazines you see at the supermarket checkout, with lurid headlines announcing how an evil rapist uncle ripped someone's life apart, why one woman's husband likes bathing in yak's urine and look, Kim Kardashian has cellulite on her thighs, doesn't that make you feel better?

It's easy to mock ITV, but in the digital era, they now sit alongside tens of other channels fighting for your eyeballs. You can't exactly blame them for seeking the lowest common denominator, although there has been some pretty unforgiveable cases of not just scraping the barrel, but removing the barrel and digging up what's beneath it. It's baffling as to why, in the 21st century, we have the council-estate bear-baiting contest that is The Jeremy Kyle Show; why the mentally ill are invited on to be mocked on The X Factor and how can anyone laugh at the catchphrase farm emanating from that post-millennial Bobby Davro, Keith Lemon?

One thing I'm conscious of, is that as I approach middle age, I don't want to turn into the finger-wagging dullard who sneers at the younger generations, spewing out sentences that begin "Back in my day...". It's become quite a challenge, as the mere existence of Nicki Minaj and Ed Sheeran has made me envy the deaf.

Back in my d... Um, when I was growing up, TV was a great companion for me. My first memories were of getting up really early on a Saturday morning and sitting through the test cards and start-up sequences, having our colour television all to myself.

The BBC would usually be the first to open its doors, giving us Battle Of The Planets followed by their main attraction. Swap Shop would launch a full hour ahead of Tiswas, yet the Noel-Edmonds-helmed compendium of phone-in chat and proto-Freecycle trading was such dreadful tedium that I nearly always opted for ITV despite the first sightings of Chris Tarrant being an eon away.

Now, Tiswas was one of the many gems that was generated by the ITV system of old. Fifteen different companies covered the nation, along with the Channel Islands, each with a region to themselves, yet expected to pitch in to the 'network' as a whole. You didn't always get what your regional neighbours were watching. It paid to keep an eye on the TV Times magazine...

This was multi-channel before the term was even coined. And living in Northamptonshire meant that although Anglia was our main provider of ITV, we could also opt for a version of ITV from the midlands, albeit on a slightly weaker signal. Most folk in Wellingborough stuck with Anglia for the solid picture quality, although the midlands broadcasts were very much watchable, with just the merest hint of haze.

The offerings from the midlands company (ATV until 1982, then Central onwards) were a lot sharper than Anglia. Switch on Central News, and you'd hear of a nightclub stabbing in Leicester. Go for Anglia, and it's a cat stuck up a tree in Cambridge.

It was more than just news. Everyone's heard of the output made by ATV and Central, which was eye-catching and beautifully anarchic. From the aforementioned Tiswas, over to Revolver; The Muppet Show; Spitting Image; Hardwicke House; Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Sapphire And Steel, the Birmingham-based guys ran riot over the schedules. Of course, there was the more family-friendly stuff which also hit the ratings, like The Upper Hand; New Faces (a watchable Britain's Got Talent); Bullseye and Celebrity Squares.

What's Anglia notable for? Survival; Sale Of The Century and Tales Of The Unexpected. The first of those is undoubtedly a remarkable venture in television broadcasting, but for my tastes, Survival is in the box marked 'Worthy but dull'. Long after they had made a few runs on the network, Anglia would fill a few slots in their own region with scratchy repeats of the exotic-animal-spotting documentary.

It's not too difficult to see that the ITV network of old was dominated by a few big players, with the far-flung less-populated regions barely getting a look-in. There certainly was a 'Big Five'. Being based in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds meant that Thames, LWT, ATV/Central, Granada and Yorkshire could dominate the prime-time schedules with their own big-name productions. The others in the system were forever to be 625-lined Cinderellas, putting in their bit with children's telly and daytime efforts, with only the odd sniff at a post-7pm networked slot.

Central had a very slick presentation about it, making it compelling viewing even when your favourite programmes weren't on. By contrast, Anglia resembled a museum of the air, with silver-haired presenters stuck in front of a locked camera, reading out the schedules with some curtains as the background.

As a Tiswas fan, it's hard to forgive Anglia for dropping the show and taking Southern's Saturday Banana not once, but twice. I remember enduring this tame Saturday morning offering and wishing for Tiswas to return to our screens. I didn't quite grasp how to tune into ATV, where I'd have found Chris Tarrant and the Phantom Flan Flinger all present and correct.

Of course, later on as I discovered all about the different regions, I used it to my advantage. Popping over to my grandfather's house in Surrey was a great opportunity to watch The Smurfs on LWT. It also made me wonder what the hell Fangface was, having glanced an eye at Yorkshire's 'regional variations'. It hit Central, and my curiousity turned to disappointment. Ditto Sport Billy.

These days, none of this matters, as both regions are 99% identical, with only the 6pm regional news and a few sub-five-minute bulletins being the only difference. Every ITV offering from Berwick-upon-Tweed down to Penzance is pretty much the same. When Margaret Thatcher allowed the stations to take over each other from the 1990s onwards, ITV went from being weird and wonderful to being sterile and safe.

So we had Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, trying to undo the damage by allowing Freeview's channel 8 slot to be used by local TV stations. A few of these have launched, with Norwich's Mustard TV and Grimsby's Estuary TV taking the 'local happenings' approach. It's sensible stuff, not unlike the regional TV of old, yet on a lower budget. Despite the smaller audiences and narrow finances, both these stations do well with smart graphics and unrelenting enthusiasm. However, it's London Live that grabs the headlines, and all for the wrong reasons.

Being a station owned by the Evening Standard and Independent Newspapers, it's keen to make a big splash and to be known by every Londoner. While there is fresh local content in abundance, the directors decided to fill up a lot of the schedule with programmes acquired from the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. So you get Smack The Pony; Peep Show; Bugs and London's Burning, with the home-grown live stuff emanating from a small studio in the HQ of the newspaper-producing parent company.

Thanks to the satellite broadcasts, I'm able to watch the channel, despite being 70 miles away from the capital. It's not a pleasant experience. Obviously, being so far out of its catchment area, it's not really for me anyway, but I really do think that if I was living in London, I'd not give this channel a second glance.

The biggest mistake the channel has made is to aim itself purely at 18-25 year olds. To look at the presenters and studio is like looking into the window of Toni & Guy. It's running an MTV ethos and unsurprisingly, the original content has gained viewing figures as low as zero. Okay, so I'm citing some pessimistic ratings, but the average audience for their early evening show is around 4,000. When your broadcast area has at least a population of 10 million, that's a stunning failure.

The commissioning choices have reflected the desire to be a London-only BBC Three clone. On opening night, Londoners were subjected to some 'street footballers' and a Jamie-Oliver-wannabe chef who goes out checking 'street food'. It's all urban chic, segued with rapid camera whips and coming across like the station Nathan Barley and his media chums always wanted to make.

It should come as no surprise that the station is facing failure. The regional ITV programmes of old were watched by your mum and dad, and that's what London Live should have aimed for. There's no point targeting the current generation of youth, as local television is by far one of the naffest things from their perspective. It's dull, it's televisual Horlicks, it's 100% Alan Partridge. I very much doubt teenagers and twenty-somethings give two shits about what's on Freeview channel 8. They're off out clubbing and meeting their mates. At that age, so was I.

To grab the eyes of the young, you'd have to be like E4 or ITV2, be bold with expensive imports like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. And that's obviously not what the local TV initiative was meant for.

There's no harm in going for the middle-aged viewer sitting at home trying to wind down after a day's work. Outside the M25, that's what the new local stations are doing. I'm baffled as to why channel proprietors Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev decided Hoxtonite hipsters would ever switch on to London Live.


Phil Costin said...

I found this very interesting! I live in Northampton. If you have any stories about Northants TV, I'd be curious to read about that too. It just vanished.

Phil Costin said...

I found this very interesting! I live in Northampton. If you have any stories about Northants TV, I'd be curious to read about that too. It just vanished.