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TV UK, 7 October

Why live TV is rubbish.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Live TV is rubbish. Shark Attack Live! (Channel 5, Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8pm) exemplified everything that is wrong with live TV. First of all, the only honest justification for making such a programme live at all is the ghoulish hope that someone might be eaten. Presumably, though, measures would have been in place to prevent us actually witnessing such an outcome.

So why not just shoot for weeks, or for however long is needed to get exciting and revealing footage of sharks, and then edit it into an interesting documentary, sparing viewers the tedious technical failures, the inane chat while people hang around, and the ‘suspense’ of not knowing whether anything is going to happen? Because commissioning editors are obsessed with live TV, and convinced it adds something special to otherwise boring programmes.

For some reason, they think we share their own fascination with the business of making TV, with satellite links, deadlines and even research: how often are we promised that we’ll find out ‘later in the programme’ something that any proper documentary would tell us right now? Archaeology programmes, especially those conducted inexplicably ‘against the clock’, even when not live, are particular offenders on this score. Do they really think we like this nonsense?

Shark Attack Live! had the same naff feel as BBC1’s How Euro Are You?, shown on Saturday night, in which the BBC tried to breathe life into a now utterly bloodless issue by broadcasting live from a bustling studio with pulsing music, text messaging and, er, a quiz. ‘Event TV’ sans event.

Meanwhile, the ‘live!’ approach tends to undermine any serious attempt to understand an issue. Researchers spent much of Shark Attack Live! trying to prove that sharks only attack people in cases of ‘mistaken identity’ caused by ambiguous silhouettes – thereby attributing sharks with a preference, whether ethical or culinary, for seals over surfers. This surely neglects the fact that sharks are every bit as stupid as commissioning editors, and are not known for being fussy about their food.

Even highly educated news editors are unable to resist the silhouette of a party conference, giving little thought to its nutritional value. Some years ago, when TV stopped broadcasting live from party conferences, some critics complained of ‘dumbing down’. In fact, given the increasing vacuousness of these occasions, that was a smart move. As this year’s party conference season trundles to a close, it is clear that these supposedly vital political get-togethers are about as eventful as the supposedly shark-infested waters off San Diego.

News editors’ persisting focus on party conferences may be testament to the lack of political action elsewhere, but it also demonstrates a lack of the imagination that might allow for a less predictable and more revealing approach to uncharted political waters.

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