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The media we deserve

It’s always dangerous to make snap-judgements about someone else’s television. Brits criticize the American product for being intellectually negligible and crass; Yanks regard much UK output as slow, worthy and turgid. But prolonged TV viewing is a wonderful key to national attitudes.

It should be said that – although we feel we are well-acquainted with each other’s TV – we are not. Most Brits base their opinions of America’s vast news and entertainment service on:

1) buy-ins screened in the UK;

2) a few hours’ sporadic viewing at a motel near LA airport.

Similarly, Yanks form impressions of Brit-progs by dipping in and out of the (intellectually rarified) PBS network. When in London, they may catch a special on Birds of Britain, or One Man And His Dog in prime time. These are not regarded as compulsive viewing. Then, after 1.30 a.m., all is darkness.

AMERI-TV: First, there’s lots of it. Americans believe in superabundant choice, and see no reason why TV should be an exception to the rule. Second (and as a result), it is competitive ... with dozens of channels chasing a limited – if large – number of viewers. Success depends on attracting attention. Programmes need to make a splash; ditto personalities. (In a country with 230 million people, you can’t be quiet and expect the culture to recognize you).

So: the first 90 seconds of your station’s new sit-com must be the freshest, the funniest, the sexiest. A cops’n robbers series better be the most thrilling and dangerous, with nary a wasted frame. Girls must be pretty. Men must be handsome. Ameri-audiences have learned to expect instant gratification, and there are no second chances. Even producers of high-quality current affairs are at pains to satisfy popular tastes. Disappoint the viewer, and other worlds are his at the touch of a remote-control button: from feature films on cable, to MTV, to rolling news, soft porn or repeats of Mork and Mindy. This is the video equivalent of ‘Having It All’. The result is that makers of American television have created rods for their own backs by creating Ameriviewer. Over-stimulated, restless and skittish, he typically has the attention-span of an ant (research shows maximum 3 mins). His ability to concentrate is shot.

BRIT-TELLY:Brits confuse TV in general (and the BBC in particular) with morality in general and goodness in particular. They are never sure where entertainment fits in, let alone commerce ... and grapple hopelessly with these issues every time the licence-fee comes up for renewal.

To resolve the confusion, they have set up ‘watchdog’ bodies (rough equivalents to America’s FCC) to monitor broadcasting, and make sure that no one enjoys it too much. Part of their job is to limit competition (i.e., the number of stations on the air) and to interfere as much as possible with the ones they’ve got. As a result, no one knows whether British TV is:

1) a branch of Government and / or the Home Office;

2) electronic Moral Example (a branch of the Church of England);

3) just another means of selling toothpaste;

4) an adventure playground for ‘creative’ adults (e.g., journalists and producers) who would be a nuisance and virtually unemployable elsewhere.

Brit TV executives pride themselves on intellectual and creative integrity. They are, they claim, above the ignoble American scramble for ratings. They do not pander to viewers accustomed to ‘instant nirvana’, and are fully prepared to give new programmes a chance to ‘run in’. Nor are they slaves to the sudden-death ratings-system known as ‘overnights’. (They can’t afford overnights). Success, they claim, is not about ‘popularity’. In truth, they see programme content as some reflection of the quality of their own minds, and do not wish to be judged harshly. This presents problems when considering Game For A Laugh.

But what really annoys Brit TV moguls is the thought that ‘formula’ American programmes often high onlip-gloss and low on IQ have consistently swept the boards in Britain. Brit-viewer (accustomed as he is to Finer Things) has not proved immune to the charm of Charlie’s Angels. This seems like a betrayal, but does nothing to change (there’s that word again) programming policy. It merely proves that viewer flesh is contemptibly weak. Also, that Yanks have mastered the trick of producing images and stories deeply satisfying to a broad public (no mean achievement). Brit-moguls could, of course, refuse to buy them; but that would be commercial suicide. Instead, they compromise by showing them and being snooty aboutthem at the same time. Britviewers, for their part, have rapidly acquired more video cassette recorders per capita than any other country in the world except Japan, and use them to watch American films.


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