(Warning, roaming semi-rant ahead…many will have heard it before…)
Whither British television? The slow, inevitable decline has been with us for nearly twenty years – our tastes are not changing, rather our ability to view the lack of quality for what it is and call it out as such has become endemic in the same way as it has with cinema. Good television is still being made, but for the most part originality has been cast aside in favour of reduced overheads and a dose of fake reality. The last few months have seen a depressing nadir in terms of the state we’ve reached, although I fear that we haven’t seen the bottom.
There may be the romance through rose-tinted glasses of older programmes, but fundamentally it’s hard to argue that things did actually used to be better. The good stuff? A large part of it is imported these days, the AMC/HBO model has been shown to work (although HBO’s history wasn’t always as rosy, its early days being funded by soft-porn) and the most popular comedies are nearly all American (consider the state of British Comedy, consider what we used to produce and watch the decline). Home grown quality programming (especially non-repetitive drama) is sadly limited and outside of the BBC seems even more limited – ITV & Channel 4 producing a dearth or quality that has been limited to Appropriate Adult, Black Mirror & Hillsborough over the last five years. To understand how far Channel 4 in particular have fallen in terms of faith in their audience, look how few foreign language films it now shows (once a cornerstone of its programming schedule), instead filling its schedule with shows that reduce us all to a collection of freaks to be laughed at – Brooker picked the right channel to show his view on the decline, on no other British channel has it been as prevalent. Sure, it has the occasional bright light (I may not like Skins, but I can recognise it has quality – the same with “This Is England”) but the percentage is so small as to be insulting.
The BBC remains our crown jewel, but successive withdrawal of funding over the years has seen even it reduced to a parade of celebrity wannabee’s (the aforementioned small, racist badgers) hawking makeover of mind, body & home – all within a safe, idealised version of what we used to be. Outside of Newsnight I’ve given up on its television news coverage, returning to Radio Four where it at least assumes the listener can remember what happened the previous day and are treated like adults. Drama wise it still produces more than anyone else, but it’s a small fraction of its previous output and far more adverse to risk than it used to be. Doctor Who, Sherlock, even The Shadow Line are all better than the majority of output, but the yearning for the days when Dennis Potter and his like would shock the nation and send newspaper editors into fits of apoplexy over our cornflakes are long gone.
Democracy didn’t come with more channels, a lowering of standards did as the cash was spread thinner and the need to return a profit increased. The aforementioned AMC/HBO model? They look to the long term, repeating a show two or three times and building up DVD sales. With the move into digital sales this model will work even more, the BBC dipped its toes into the cauldron with Rome, but somewhere along the line lost its bottle that the strategy would work, returning to the older model instead. Other channels haven’t even ventured this far.
At the present rate, outside of soap opera and established series, original British drama may well be dead in the next ten years, swallowed by other countries that have sought to fill the hole and by independent broadcasters who can buy cheaper than they can produce. If it weren’t so depressing an examination of it all would make a fantastic piece of television drama.