Why is TV so scared of risk?

Nelson David on the 'unimaginative, derivative, culturally barren mulch' that gets commissioned

As I read Chortle’s edited highlights from the Broadcast TV Comedy Forum last week, it became very clear that the TV times they are a changin’. 25 years ago TV was often a conduit for the experimental, the weird, the wonderful and the niche. And a lot of that stuff was being beamed to what would now be regarded as a ‘mass audience’. TV now however seems to be slowly becoming just another branch of lifestyle journalism – there’s a sense the prevailing wisdom is ‘look, we’ve got hours and hours to fill and frankly as long as we sell the advertising, reach the designated demographic or don’t scare the horses, who cares what we fill them with.’ Whatever happened to pushing the boundaries or going with a hunch?

I’ll admit it upfront – I am clearly bitter and twisted. And yes there is a hidden agenda. Not so long ago I had this great idea for what I’d describe as an intelligent TV panel show. It was based around my passion for street art, contemporary art and – indeed – art generally. The plan was it would be a sort of QI / Never Mind the Buzzcocks for art fans – Never Mind the Pollocks if you will. In fairness one TV production company was kind enough to option the format from me and for a while I thought I was going to buck the risk-averse downmarket trend that seems to have gripped the British mass media. A couple of months into the deal however the credit crunch kicked in and it was unceremoniously de-optioned.

Maybe the idea wasn’t what the public were waiting for after all. But I knew one thing for sure. Any assumption that you can speak to a mass audience in an intelligent manner has become increasingly regarded with suspicion in broadcasting. This is not only patronising – it’s borderline offensive. I’m reminded of the story about the TV exec who spent all day producing trashy prolefeed and could be heard leaving the office of an evening shouting ‘I’m off to the opera’! It’s an unedifying spin-off effect from our less socially mobile society - middle class broadcasters trying to second guess what the ‘plebs’ would like to watch. As Marie Antoinette might possibly have put it: ‘Let them eat turkey twizzlers.’

For my money John Peel’s radio producer the late John Walters had a much better plan: ‘Our job isn’t to give the public what they want – it’s to give them what they didn’t know they want.’ That’s not elitist – that’s sharing the good stuff with everyone.

Back to those TV executive edited highlights. One observation was that when it comes to TV, audiences don’t necessarily like to be stimulated. But surely if this is true, why bother commissioning TV programmes at all – why not just give out free lobotomies on the National Health Service and broadcast that live instead? Reading Between the Lines there’s a sense that both commissioners and producers have been put in an impossible situation. Clearly a lot of the stuff that many of them would personally like to see on screen isn’t the sort of thing they think they can ‘sell’ to their bosses or the advertisers. Meanwhile as TV moves away from any sense of artistic creativity or risk, the audience is voting with its feet and walking off in the opposite direction.

For example, imagine I went to a commissioner and said: ‘I want to make a comedy show about the capitalist system and its iniquities. It’ll be a light-hearted satirical romp through the history of economic oppression.’ I would expect to hear something like ‘get your coat’. But of course Michael Moore has just unleashed such a ‘product’ onto the ‘platform’ of cinema and my guess is it will be a ratings winner. Mike counts his audience in tens of millions – just like Simon Cowell, in fact.

He’s living proof that you can treat the audience like intelligent grown-ups and still be popular. I guess one of Britain’s broadcasters will show his film at some time in the future but which of them would dare commission a populist TV entertainment show based around the same challenging anti-establishment principles?

In the end maybe none of this really matters. Nothing lasts forever. And even in this climate some great stuff still gets through – We Are Klang, Psychoville and Peep Show immediately spring to mind. Perhaps TV’s now the lesser option in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. Perhaps that experimentation and artistic risk I prefer is freely available elsewhere, at the theatre or out there on the net?

But what comes out of the telly does still matter in one way. Growing up watching Monty Python gave me a taste for comedy and shaped my preferences. In some cases they were often talking about stuff I didn’t get – I wasn’t ‘in the target demographic’ - but frankly that just added to the attraction. If today’s young TV viewers are spoonfed with unimaginative, derivative, culturally barren mulch – even if they are ‘aspirational young ABC1s’ – then you have to ask: who wants to aspire to that?

  • Nelson David is a comedy writer and founder of Playtime Comedy Workshops

Published: 30 Sep 2009

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