TV Review from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
They say it is a sign of getting older when policeman look like precocious sixth-formers, when you start bemoaning the lack of professionalism in modern sport and when you go around saying that music is “not what it was like in my day”. But however things may change and standards may decline, good old British TV is the one thing that will stay the same—the best in the world, and nobody can dispute it. Well here’s someone who’s about to. Frankly, anybody who believes British TV is unsurpassed in its professionalism and quality can’t have their eyes properly attached to their brain.
British television over the years has become the most noticeable expression (and exponent) of the dumbing-down of society. True, television everywhere since its invention and widespread application has been an instrument of ruling class propaganda and subtle conditioning. Something watched by people on average for about 30 hours a week is likely to have some influence on those who indulge, and TV’s influence has been huge. But what has changed over the years, as it has expanded as a medium and helped magnify the inanities of a decadent society, has been the quality of its output.
It did indeed used to be stated with tiresome regularity that British television was the best in the world. Look at America, its detractors would say, and be grateful for what you’ve got. Even if this view was complacent, there was almost certainly a grain of truth in it. It would be interesting, however, to ask the self-same TV executives who were putting this argument forward some years ago why, if British TV was so good and American TV so awful, the former has become just like the latter rather than the other way around. Could it possibly be something to do with the globalisation of culture around the modern metaphoric icon of the McDonald’s hamburger? And that America’s cut-throat values of competition, individualism and more competition flavoured with added piety have now triumphed?
Smash the Mac
Of course, the good thing about modern TV in Britain is that, just as in America, there is more choice. Or at least there appears to be more choice. The problem is that even though there are far more cans of televisual baked beans on offer down at the analogue and digital supermarkets, there is nothing to choose between them— they are all essentially the same. The appearance of more choice is just that—an appearance, or even an apparition, that is soon dispelled when reality starts to kick-in. British TV is no longer a serious, quality, entertainment medium. It was never reliable, unless reliably Establishment in orientation, but it had its good points. These have now been drowned under a welter of monotonous crime programmes, tired and repetitive soap operas, moronic game shows and third-rate sitcoms which would have never seen the Commissioning Editor’s desk in the 1970s, let alone had the chance to progress from there into the waste-paper basket.
As in the States, there is more viewer participation than there used to be, and this is one ray of light. In the old days, viewer participation on the BBC constituted having an extraordinarily tall man with an improbably short Auntie appear on the Generation Game so they could be patronised by Bruce Forsyth. Naturally enough, this sort of thing still goes on (after all, why change a winning formula?) But there are now plenty of programmes whereby Jo(e) Public can appear to have his or her say. The problem this time is that these programmes are rarely if ever concerned with serious issues, and when they are (typically on alcoholism, family break-up, etc) the entire debate is framed in tabloid newspaper terms and thereby rendered all but meaningless.
Christmas TV has offered little if any respite from this dumbing-down process. Never exactly a hot-bed of intellectual pursuit, it now appears to be in league with the breweries in a last-ditch attempt to drive people out of the house on wintry nights.
But if you are sitting down reading this after another dose of meaningless and patronising Christmas crud, don’t just wallow in your armchair and complain. Get up and go and do something less boring instead. This journal, for one, is full of relevant suggestions.