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Is this the end for the TV reviewer?

Multi-channel, multi-platform TV limits moments of shared viewing - and the need for someone to write about them.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Around this time of year, it is customary for television reviewers to offer their assessment of the past 12 months of small screen offerings.

This is a lazy and predictable formula for two reasons. (A) It involves merely recycling snippets of stuff that the reviewer has written in the past year, and (B) because most columns published over Christmas will have been penned well in advance, normally in late October, to ensure that the writer in question gets an extensive winter holiday to rival only that of London Underground train drivers. But I promise I won’t do that. Just to prove how current this column is, let me declare that I am watching BBC1’s One Show on the evening of 17 December as I write this – and Michael Parkinson is the guest, just for corroboration.

The real televisual story of 2008 has not been the ‘scandal’ of John Sergeant’s resignation from Strictly Come Dancing, GMTV’s phone-in competition debacles, Citroën’s rather amusing ‘German’ advert, Robert Peston constantly scaring us to death with his dire economic prognostications, or the thousands of Chinese girls tortuously dancing non-stop for hours at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The real TV story of 2008 has been the increasing dissolution of television viewing as a collective, narrative experience.

Historiographers and philosophers have long been predicting the cultural fragmentation of Western society, with the likes of Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard either blaming or celebrating advanced, technological capitalism for causing these fissures in our culture, and for helping to erase communally binding metanarratives, leading us to fashion our own, atomised worlds. Christianity is a rubbished grand story – so they say – as is Marxism. And, were Lyotard and Baudrillard still alive in these troubled times, I wouldn’t be surprised if they declared the death of capitalism. Again. We are fragmented, lonely souls, who share nothing with each other, and who no longer believe in grand stories or grand designs.

The television schedule, particularly in Britain and especially at Christmas, has traditionally been interpreted as a signifier of a society that can find a common cause. And particularly in nostalgic hindsight. How many times must we be told that 28million people watched the Morecambe and Wise 1978 Christmas special, that the nation stopped for the 1966 World Cup final, or that the Two Ronnies and EastEnders Christmas specials in the 1980s were essential viewing for all? We lament these common, shared experiences because television no longer caters for them.

In 2008, the most obvious manner in which ‘television as a common, communal shared experience’ displayed itself truly as a thing of the past was through three avenues: the Sky+/Freeview box, BBC’s iPlayer and YouTube. I am surely not the only one to have been awoken to the allure of Top Gear in the past 12 to 18 months, and I don’t think it’s a surprise that everyone’s been talking about this (let it be said, long-running) show ever since it became endlessly repeated on the Dave channel in the middle of 2007. People have been turning to satellite and digital for two main reasons: they are getting increasingly annoyed with the BBC, and they have come to realise that in these cash-strapped days in which non-smoking pubs are expensive and utterly joyless places to be, indoor repeats of Mock The Week, or of Clarkson, May and Hammond crossing the English Channel in a car for the millionth time, resemble far better value for money each evening.

In other words, the myriad satellite and digital channels now no longer cater for communal tastes, but for individual ones. The BBC’s iPlayer has done likewise: you can watch what you want, when you want. Apart from a few shows such as Strictly Come Dancing or I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, television shows are no longer the subject of communal, water-cooler gossip. This is because everyone’s watching what they want, when they want. When was the last time you heard the remark ‘Did you see the football last night’? Not for ages, I bet. Because football’s always on television, and you wouldn’t automatically know which channel the interlocutor was talking about. BBC? ITV? Sky? Setanta?

You can gauge how weak the appeal of TV as a communal experience became in 2008 by the manner in which print newspapers now cover the medium. The Daily Telegraph only occasionally has a TV reviewer; the Daily Mail no longer has a television reviewer at all; Spotlight’s TV man, Nick Cohen, even predicted the death of the TV reviewer altogether. In a time when people no longer watch the same shows together at the same time, he asked, what is the point of them?

Indeed, in our YouTube age, in which clips and highlights have supplanted context and narrative, I fear he may be right. It strangely mirrors the phenomenon in which the musical download and the iPod has supplanted the musical album. I find this depressing. I don’t mean to sound like an old fogey, but can you imagine The White Album or Abbey Road by The Beatles, or The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall by Pink Floyd being released in the era of the download? They would be incomprehensible – and forgotten. They worked because they tell stories, and they demand patience.

Likewise, radio stations such as Classic FM reduce the finest symphonies by Sibelius or operas by Wagner to soundbites. When it comes to the print media, newspapers no longer demand that you read the real thing from cover to cover, thereby digesting and contextualising the news, they give you a handy opportunity to read the bits you want to read (and the comment articles you know you are going to agree with in the first place). People can equally tune into whichever news TV channel they know is going to be amenable to their political prejudices, whether it’s the BBC, Fox News, Channel 4, Sky or al-Jazeera. No context; always immediate, providing instant gratification.

‘Dumbing down’ is a phrase almost as irritating as ‘political correctness gone mad’. But I fear the greater choice TV provides us, the more stupid it makes us. The credit crunch and the global recession haven’t made me re-assess my free-market capitalist views. But the manner in which the media metamorphosed in 2008 has tempted me to re-evaluate Marx, McLuhan… and Chris Morris.

Never have the media been so important. I predict 2009 will reveal the TV-internet hybrid (for that is what it will become) to be more influential than we could ever have expected. Or dreaded. Television used to tell stories. In the near future, it will just feed us soundbites. It will tell us what we dread to hear, but what we want to hear.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture

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