It is a sad fact that as the 1990s come to an end most viewers and critics think that the standard of television output has been lower in Britain during the last decade than at almost any other time in living memory. The sixties had The Avengers and The Prisoner, the seventies had Dad`s Army and Fawlty Towers, the eighties Only Fools and Horses and the "golden era" of British soap—but what did the nineties have?
The television industry in Britain, previously cited as the best in the world, has lost its way at the same time as the entertainment industry the world over has seen a dumbing down of its output of truly mammoth proportions. While almost everyone now concedes that the quality of TV programmes has dipped, there is, bizarrely at first sight, far more TV about than ever before. Indeed this may appear to be one of the problems.
Not only has quality perceptibly fallen, the quality that remains is now spread across a myriad of different channels. Today, despite the ongoing technological revolution in broadcasting, there is probably less new, quality TV across the sixty or seventy channels now available than there was across just three or four channels in the past. Broadcasting in the UK is now spreading itself very thinly indeed, and it shows.
There are two main reasons for this, both of them connected. One is the arrival of satellite—and now digital—television. Digital television service provision in the UK is currently a duopoly. It is an industry dominated by Digital Sky Broadcasting and its newer rival OnDigital, though as with most duopolies there is a fair degree of collusion and co-operation between the two. As digital TV is not restricted by the technical limits imposed by the normal UHF television waveband, they have been able to multiply the provision of TV channels in Britain several times over, presenting their subscribers with pick-and-choose portfolios of channels dedicated to drama, comedy, music, sport or whatever may take their fancy.
Unfortunately, these channels are heavily dominated by advertising in the main, even more so than their terrestrial rivals. Some of them undoubtedly provide a good service for the sections of the TV audience they are marketed at—Sky Sports being probably the most obvious example—but they generally offer low-grade television and repeats of popular old favourites such as those now offered by UK Gold and Granada Plus. Even Sky`s in-house Channel, Sky One, offers next to no new programming at all. It is recycled fayre, cheap and advertising-driven, with the bottom-line of one of the world`s biggest multinationals rarely out of sight and mind.
Down, down, deeper and down
The other reason for the spread of low-quality TV has not been so intrinsically related to the arrival of new technology. Instead it is a phenomenon reflective of what is happening right under our noses in capitalist society. This is the lack of social cohesion and direction evident in a society now based on little more than the commodification of our everyday lives and the anarchic rule of the market.
Not only is there a lack of a coherent future for people to forge or identify with today and for programme-makers to tap in to, there is even a lack of a shared sense of past too. As society becomes more disparate, its members more "classless", isolated and bombarded by a sustained attack of cultural ephemera, "market segmentation" becomes all important: commercial exploitation based on the sustenance of diversity and division in previously homogenous markets. Class is no longer important in this scenario, instead we are defined by the lager we drink or the shade of lipgloss we wear.
As a result of all this only two types of new programme get made with any frequency. These are either highly specific, and necessarily low-budget programmes aimed at the plethora of culturally transient activity in existence at any one time, or generic blockbusters of various sorts aimed a mass audience on the basis of the rule of the lowest common denominator—trashy dramas, increasingly repetitive soaps and anything else which, whether by chance or design, achieves a high enough market share to warrant being flogged to death, from docusoaps to celebrity cookery programmes.
Hence the state of UK (and indeed, world) broadcasting at present—a massive proliferation of channels with a parallel proliferation of trash. Finding low-grade dross or endless repeats is no real problem now, finding new quality programming which has required some sort of sustained investment most certainly is.
Of course it need not be like this. Digital television in particular offers huge scope for the democratisation of broadcasting, with hundreds of channels catering for all tastes and perspectives, properly produced and free from the dead hand of the advertising people. Perhaps at some point in the new millennium society will be able to mould and create a worthwhile broadcasting system which is a fitting use of the advanced technology now at our disposal, and which can inform us, entertain us and empower us in equal measure. If the market economy is to survive for much longer though, we shouldn`t really be counting on miracles, should we?