If I Ruled Television: Less is more

This is the speech that Will Self delivered at the Broadcast and Beyond conference on 19 May 2010 in which he addressed an audience of professional broadcasters and told them what he would do if he ruled television:

To me, if there’s a spirit of British television it’s this: a title sequence for a current affairs or news programme that unites the individual viewer with the commonality.

Back when I were a wee lad and Michael Barrat’s hairstyle dripped over his forehead like a melting ice cream, the Nationwide title sequence quickened my pulse every time. A snappy clarion of horns, a rappel of strings: “Dada-daaa-Dada-daaa-Dada-daaa!” The Good Word by Johnny Scott leaping down the scale as archetypes of modern Britain appeared in quick succession: a car accelerating up on to the Severn Bridge; a man with a child in his arms; the Tyne at Newcastle; a man speaking on a car phone the size of a small car; electricity pylons stalking across countryside; the ectomorphic cooling towers of a power station with sheep grazing in the foreground; a train disgorging commuters – to look upon each of these was to experience a thrill of recognition – this is us, that could be me – but most of all, as the threads of Ns and Ws merged in the centre of the screen to form a spinning cog or mandala suggestive of that mystical desideratum, technological progress: You. Are. Here!

It was the same buzz for me watching the News at Ten’s title sequence in the 1980s: the first brass trump of Johnny Pearson’s The Awakening sounding somewhere in the heavens, then the earth, cloud-shrouded and spinning in space – Who are we? the sequence implied, alien visitors perhaps, intent on abducting Alastair Burnet and subjecting him to perverse sexual experimentation – but no! because as the timpani began to chunter: “Brrrumbumbumdoodoodooo! Brrrumbumbumdoodoodooo!” And the POV swooped down we sensed that we were both invaders and invaded – a suspicion rapidly confirmed as we curveted along the Thames and came to a screeching halt, vis-a-vis Big Ben with the famous bongs hammering home exactly the same message: You-bong! Are-bong! Here-bongggg!

It’s a well-known axiom of the character that the cruelest of people are also the most sentimental – so the cage fighter boxer cries at the Andrex puppy while Myra Hindley knits baby bootees. I suppose, as a professional satirist, my title sequence foible represents the same extreme cognitive dissonance: for I loathe patriotism of any kind – regarding my British nationality as an accident of birth on a par with a cleft palate; and I hate the thought of belonging to any demographic group, class or even club; while, as for the spirit of the times, the ceaselessly doubled rhythms of contemporaneity – well, much as it pains me to admit it, in my frenzied evacuation from the Dunkirk of the present, back towards an imperfectly recalled – and so wholly romanticised – past, I resemble just about every other bad tempered old bitch and bastard in the realm.

And yet … and yet, even the asinine title sequence for the news on BBC News 24 still does it to me every time. As the stream of scarlet info-spunk spurts around the world from satellite dish to satellite dish, arcing over Matt Frei’s shoulder, skimming past Reeta Chakrabarti’s cheek – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – so my pulse quickens and my heart swells with a wholly perverse pride: we may be a shit country … I think to myself – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – … a nation of buy-to-letters, City wide-boys and knicker-boxers moored off Europe – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – … and we may be the complaisant poodles of US foreign policy – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – but, by golly, look at those kiddies hula-hooping in the South African townships, and those bearded Afghanis earnestly talking to our man in the blue flak jacket, they know what we all know – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – that our glory days will never be over so long as – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!”, the red jism homes in on the great commode of TV Centre – we still make such brilliant news title sequences!

The brief I was given for this lecture was as baggy as the pants a morbidly obese TV viewer’s just removed so he can watch his umpteenth entertainment factual on gastric band and tummy-tuck operations in comfort while snacking on 99 tubes of Pringles. It was quite simply this: If I Ruled Television? And so, here is my first royal commandment: There shalt be long news programme title sequences – incredibly long, so long they take up whole hours of broadcast time on all channels, so long that they induce a collective hallucination in viewers that they are, once more, part of a commonality who are all watching the same shows in the same place, at the same time. All watching the news! All watching Corrie! All watching the Magic-bloody-Roundabout! All watching Yosser Hughes nutting another unsympathetic official and crying out, “Giss a job!” All watching the little boy traumatically watching his mother getting – metaphorically speaking – a good seeing-to by a squaddie in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and indeed, all watching Potter himself, in his final television interview during which he informed the perkily brown, handsome walnut formerly known as Melvyn Bragg that he called his cancerous tumor, Rupert. And I think you all know why.

Simon Cowell may worry that the pool of available British talent has been drained, but as his have been some of the few shows to consistently gain ratings up above 10 million, I venture to suggest that it may actually have been this fact alone that’s poisoned the water supply. But then again let’s face it: British television has been in steady decline for years now – albeit through no fault of its own. In decline, because what made British television seem great was that it operated as a medium through which the country dialogued with itself: we were a small enough and homogeneous enough society that the tube was a speaking tube, one end pressed against broadcasters’ lips, the other against viewers’ eyes so they could read our lips.

There are a few programmes that in recent years have seemed to pull off this trick – the talent show we know about, and the celebs eating kangaroo testicles, and the wannabe celebs eating kangaroo testicles, and the kangaroos trying to stop David Attenborough getting at their testicles – but they aren’t actually the real thing: they are passivity-inducing entertainments, not rousers of public debate. So, let’s turn back the clock, let’s do away with multiplatform delivery, watch-on-demand, and the balkanization of the bandwidth that means that there’s a channel for every available foodstuff (my favourite being Lettuce TV, its ident a perky radicchio leaf with a cartoon rabbit nibbling an L, a T and a V shapes out of it). Because really, there’s no pressing need for more than three terrestrial channels: two public service and one commercial.

Indeed, why stop at terrestrial, when what I really mean is that there’s no need for more than three channels altogether. This shall be my second commandment: Rip up the cable! Stack the satellite dishes! Re-analogue the signal! And while we’re at it, remember black and white? It’s a fact that every medium’s perceived fidelity is a function of its novelty – the first time people heard scratchy Victrolas playing the Volga Boat song they thought Chaliapin was standing in the room with them; while the first time people saw films of trains choo-chooing towards them out of the screen they turned tail and fled.

Sure, I don’t expect the reintroduction of black and white television to be met with great enthusiasm by our mephedrone-snorting iPad-rubbing yoof, but give ‘em a few months and they’ll be amazed to discover that greyscale has become a scintillating spectrum, while a sole tinny speaker in the base of the television delivers all the punch of Dolby surround-sound. Think of the benefits of this savage curtailment in the amount and technical sophistication of television produced: for the taxpayer a drastic improvement in the quality of product delivered by their license fee, and for the commercial advertiser an enormous increase in the reach of their spend. I was in Hollywood a couple of years ago and graciously took a meeting in Culver City with Michael Lynton, the head of Sony Pictures. It emerged that what exercised him the most was the advent of PVRs. He told me: “In the 70s there were maybe 60 or 70 movies released a year – now it’s 400. If we want to get people into the multiplexes we have to focus our big TV advertising on the weekend before release, but now, well, if they skip the ads … ”

Of course, it would help if the studios also reduced the amount of releases, but still, I feel confident that if we go back to this future we could also see a revivified British film industry – and wouldn’t that be something? I was hoping to see Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Secretary, here this afternoon, taking time out from his lambada classes to rub frilly shoulders with us power-dressers. With his background in IT, PR, directory publishing and flogging educational courses to Johnny Foreigner he’s ideally suited – under my benign aegis – to oversee this retrenchment of British TV. If he behaves himself, I’ll even allow him to keep a salary somewhere in the region of 20 times that of the most lowly gofer on the most crappy documentary that airs in the graveyard slot: which will henceforth be 10.30pm, as my three channels all cease transmission by midnight, and only begin broadcasting in the middle of the following morning.

Because, you guessed it, that’s my next commandment: a savage curtailment of salaries. I know that altruistic folk such as you realise we’ve all got to tighten our belts a few score notches, but what better way than to lead by example in this most trailblazing of industries and head back to the kind of pay differentials there were in the late 1970s? Back then there was widespread understanding that the expression “television personality” was an oxymoron to set alongside “military intelligence” or “light well”; TV hoofers and talking heads may have been divvied up a decent wad but there was none of the likes of Wossy creaming off millions for asking superannuated starlets if they’re wearing underpants. Vast emoluments for Simon-coated-with-Cuprinol-Cowells and Jeremy-tailpipe-Clarksons of this world don’t just represent the tail wagging the dog of television, they’re akin to every single viewer in the country standing there with a steaming bag full of freshly presented ordure.

I blame New Labour’s much-vaunted policy of choice: choice in schools, choice in healthcare – these were only ever delusions: rich people have choices in all these things, poor people have to take what’s handed out to them, and in the coming climate there are going to be no free lunches – Turkey Twizzlers or otherwise. I’m sure Jeremy Hunt, as a supporter of David Cameron’s “big society” understands that letting the people have too much of a choice when it comes to television is an equally pernicious idea, after all you supported the Digital Economy Act, now why don’t you enact some more radical restrictions on the great tide of free effluent that’s engulfing us? Currently, the average adult Briton watches four hours of television a day. Four hours! With an eight-hour working day, an average hour’s commute, an hour or so for sucking off a Turkey Twizzler and another hour shouting at your kids to stop playing Call of Duty on their Xboxes, this leaves no time at all for the kind of voluntarism that our new prime minister assures us is going to rebuild broken Britain.

We have to find some more time somewhere, people – and a sharp reduction in television viewing would seem the best place to begin. Accordingly, my fourth royal commandment is to limit television viewing per adult to an average to two hours a day.

Released from their burden of choice I see the great British public getting out there and exercising – thus obviating the need for all those documentaries on obesity and all that spectator sport; involving themselves in charities – thus curtailing any requirement for heart-rending appeals shows – no more Red Nose Day telethon! No more Children in Need! Oh, happy day! Hosannas! – and now at last there will be an answer for Channel 4 executives to that terrible and vexing question: what can we find to replace Big Brother in the schedules? The answer is simple, guys: in place of reality television, we’ll have reality, just as in place of Strictly Ballroom we’ll have ballroom dancing, and in place of sniggering at talentless people, Britons will cultivate their own talents.

Look, I realise that you are probably the least receptive audience possible for my new ideas on broadcasting. I understand that your lives have been dedicated to making more television, and that you believe in what you do – you don’t see yourselves as mere manufacturers of the cultural equivalent of bubble-wrap: something for people to idly pop while their brains run in neutral. You quite reasonably view yourselves as integral to British culture. But I ask you: wouldn’t it be something of a relief to not have to be ever-expanding? And wouldn’t it reduce the pressure on you all if you didn’t have to be all things to all viewers, if your content could be tailored to appeal to people who have proven appetite for what you do? And if rather than being driven by the new technology to dilute both revenue streams and the creativity they support, you were to become its masters?

Which brings me to my fifth commandment: Thou shalt ignore da yoof. Recently, the BBC has been screening a series of 1980s-themed programmes, and on the Review Show the other evening I saw some cultural wonk propose that the reason for an upsurge in interest in this terminally naff decade was: da yoof. Bollocks, da yoof couldn’t give a toss about the 1980s, and I bet my sagging middle-aged denim backside that the audience for the Boy George biopic on Sunday evening and the 80s docco that followed it were almost exclusively Baby Boomers in their 40s and 50s.

A big problem for you senior broadcasters is that you mostly grew up in a society in which da yoof were becoming the majority: the reason why the 1960s and then the 1970s were such influential decades was this burgeoning of the young postwar generation. But now we’re all middle aged – and we’re in the majority. There have been no youth movements since the late 1970s that have had the remotest influence on mainstream culture: what did acid house rave give us to compare with 60s psychedelics – a few Tango ads is about it. The avant garde has become something to flog Right Guard with.

No, if the kids have anything to teach us it’s that their sole maxim in life was “Don’t wanna pay, won’t pay” and will no doubt soon be: “Can’t pay – won’t pay.” Still, what can you expect of an entire generation that has been reared on the fantasy that anyone can be a star if you only put a camera in front of them, especially when that camera was embedded in a mobile phone, and that clip was then uploaded to YouTube and seen around the world? Only shit things – like shit itself – are free, ipso facto: free is shit. In one of my own areas of work, journalism, I see the depredations wrought by content providers running scared with the free barbarians in hot pursuit: newspaper circulations falling five and 10% a year, basically because no one dared from the get-go to assert loud and clear: the opinions of Gary down the pub on world politics aren’t worth a fly’s fart in a hurricane. In my other area of expertise, writing fiction, it’s often remarked – by those who know no better – that, “Everyone has a novel in them”, which may be true, but the business of a functioning cultural industry is to make sure that stays inside them, because it’s crap.

OK, obviously the entire three-channels-only riff was just that: a riff. I don’t rule television; in fact, I barely have control over my own set, which is either babbling Cartoon Network at my eight-year-old or reruns of Sex in the City at my wife. But I do think there’s some truth in the adage that less is more. Now that the movies are self-destructing in a spiral of downward marketing and not-so-special effects, television is unique in being an informational resource, a mass entertainment medium and a high artistic one. The balance between public and commercial models in this country has produced great television – and I believe it can continue to do so.

However, user-generated content and file sharing – these are the pincers of the cancerous crab that’s gnawing away at all our creative industries, so please don’t allow it to consume television – don’t end up like the music business, with all the talent having to go on the road in order earn a crust. I mean, there’s only so many times the punters will pitch up for Grand Designs Live before they head round to Kevin McCloud’s own house and torch it. Pretty please do what it takes to put together a funding model for commercial television: sponsorship – I can wear it; subscription cable – better still. The argument that we don’t have sufficient demand here to fund the kind of productions that HBO put out won’t altogether wash – the secret of HBO’s success is as much the licence it grants its content providers as the budgets it affords. Besides, why not consider a subscription cable channel originated here but sold in the US? This could be a commercial proposition, or it could be a more valid revenue stream for the state broadcaster, whose core undertaking – in my view – beyond news and current affairs, should always be loss-leading content.

Clearly, a complete free-for-all in the commercial sector can only benefit the biggest players, whether they’re content providers, platform builders, broadcasters – or all three. The Ruperts and Richards of this world are like the fictional character of Hiram Potter, the multimillionaire press baron in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, according to Potter: “A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue. That is predicated on its circulation, and you know what the circulation depends on.” Well, I don’t believe any of you take that view 100% about television, nor do you have to be a pinko who lives by sucking pages of the Guardian dipped in semi-skimmed milk to think that there has to be regulation in broadcasting that helps to foster radical innovation specifically for minority interests.

The BBC has always been anomalous in our national life – and it continues to be so. When George Orwell satirised it as The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four and furnished this bogey-bureau with observations drawn from his own wartime experience as a BBC radio talks producer, he was as ever very close to the bone: a huge public-service broadcaster like the BBC is more suited to a Soviet-era communist regime than our own deregulated dystopia. Mark Thompson is only the latest BBC supremo to realise that the threat to its revenue stream lies in success quite as much as failure. The BBC is now so big, and operates across so many markets, territories and media, that it is in danger of sucking the life out of whole swaths of the private sector, let alone the other public-service broadcasters.

But you know this – and you probably also appreciate the institutional inertia that means that once an organisation has grown to a certain size it becomes impossible for it to countenance its own diminution, yet successive governments always half-look to morbidly-obese Auntie herself for the self-discipline required to shed all those pounds. If Jeremy Hunt is serious about tackling the politics of British television then he’ll need to get out from behind all the post-Thatcher and now post-Hutton bad blood that lies between the BBC and government; he’ll have to disregard his own strategic inclinations – which will be to play politics with the PBS. He’ll also need to go against his own free-marketeering instincts: the whole concept of imposing the market ethos on public services has failed in this country – it’s failed in the NHS, it’s failed in schools, and it’s failed in broadcasting; hell, it’s even failed in the markets themselves. Someone needs to have the balls to geld the BBC and get it trotting back round the paddock rather than galloping madly through every room of everyone’s house everywhere in the world.

Still, we must be sympathetic; after all, it’s painful for politicians too: they feel our pain, and they feel their own a lot more intensely. Despite the huge ratings, the first prime ministerial electoral debate secured, it remains the case that politics is essentially showbiz for ugly people – ugly people who are, paradoxically, vain. But if the debates taught us anything it was not that the British are a sophisticated electorate, willing to make new choices on the basis of new policies, but that they are a very sophisticated television audience. Let’s recall: we spend four hours a day watching television on average, whereas I doubt even the most committed anorak spends four hours a day reading Lib-Dem position papers.

The Lib-Dem bounce in the polls after the first debate was a positive reaction to a good piece of television, but as the second and then the third debate ground on, viewers tired of the spectacle that had all the intrinsic excitement of watching three six-year-olds chuck darts at the bull’s eye while standing two feet in front of it. And because the Boy Cleggster was really doing well as a TV performer, it’s no surprise that he couldn’t translate this into an electoral result for his party: we may watch a lot of TV, but we aren’t complete morons.

We aren’t complete morons, and we understand that there are testing times ahead – but things couldn’t go on the way they were, I mean, to take just one example: how many media studies graduates can a country physically produce before it begins sinking beneath the waves under the weight of them? No, the harsh truth is that recessions can often be very stimulating for creativity: once again, less becomes more, and people are compelled to cheaply innovate rather than expensively replicate existing formulas. The ideal, surely, must remain the same: to make television worth sitting down for, not simply television that people can’t be bothered to stand up and switch off.