TV UK, 7 June
'The doctrine that all people want is something to yak about in the queue at Starbucks is convenient for TV executives.'
Last week I joined my third TV audience of the general election campaign, this time on Channel 4’s Election on Trial (Tuesday 7 June).
I was there as a cheerleader for Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas and scourge of the airheaded establishment. Ironically, she was joined by the media duchess Janet Street-Porter. They were charging politicians with putting spin before substance and of lacking principles and passion. Appearing for the defence were New Labour thinker Matthew Taylor and rightwing Times columnist Michael Gove.
The format consisted of a series of witnesses called by one side and cross-examined by the other for a couple of minutes each. This left even less room for considered debate than the Tony Blair show I’d taken part in a couple of weeks before (1). Anybody who tried to stray from the courtroom-drama script to make a serious point was quickly whipped into line by presenter Jon Snow. We have to compete with the porn on Channel 5, he said. Hmm.
In one of the more enlightening exchanges, Michael Gove asked spiked’s Jennie Bristow if there is any difference between the parties. Yes, she said. So one must be better than the other, then? No, she said. Inconsistent!, he exclaimed to the audience. Not really, I mumbled to myself. Is black the same as white? And is one better than the other? More to the point, is Big Brother exactly the same as Survivor?
Now, there’s a contest that engages even fewer people than the election. The jazzman Artie Shaw once remarked that if you buried all the shit in the world six-feet underground, the public would go out with spades and dig it up. In the case of TV though, the spades are in the hands of the producers and the executives, not the public.
Some media types fondly believe that reality TV is the new politics. The idea is that the masses talk Big Brother around the water cooler all day and then rush home to vote for their favourite exhibitionist in the evening. No doubt even Survivor has its (brazenly self-conscious and frankly not very intelligent) fans, but the idea that reality TV is the new TV is depressing enough. The doctrine that all people want is a bit of titillation and something to yak about in the queue at Starbucks is convenient for TV executives, who would rather not take the risk of trying something more imaginative.
The people who actually make TV programmes are in a similar position to early jazz musicians, informed by band leaders that ‘The people just want something they can dance to, so let’s keep it simple: nothing fancy and no low-down jive!’. For the most part, they are content to do as they’re told, but occasional flights of improvisation and whispers of bebop are detectable, even on Saturday evenings.
On Saturday BBC2 begins Jazz, Ken Burns’ epic documentary series about the history of jazz (7.30pm, 9 June). Never mind that Jazz is followed by the easy listening I Love 1973 and the godawful karaoke Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: it is preceded by America, America, a profile of Ken Burns himself. Burns is famous for ambitious and beautifully-made documentaries like The West, The Civil War and my favourite documentary film, The Brooklyn Bridge.
Oddly enough, it never occurred to Burns to invite two families from Milton Keynes to build their own Brooklyn bridges out of blown-up condoms in a race against the clock on a desert island, with viewers calling in to vote for a winner. As scholar of US history, he is even less likely to have called such an exercise democracy. But then Ken Burns is an eccentric old codger.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) See TV UK, 18 May
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