Monday, 24 December 2012

Why are Television Repeats and Reality TV so Popular?

The news yesterday that the BBC is to end children’s programming on BBC One and move it to CBBC and CBeebies drew a number of disparaging comments about the likelihood that the gap in scheduling would then be filled by yet more repeats rather than new programming.

This seems at odds with the figures quoted by TV Wise’s Editor-in-Chief, Patrick Munn, which indicate more money than ever is being spent on programming. But is it programming that people watch, or simply reheated versions of already successful formats? Game shows, reality TV, soap operas, cookery and home makeover shows all have their devoted audiences. So too does sport, especially football, and the Saturday night staple diet of X-Factor, I’m A Celebrity, Strictly Come Dancing and others which clear supermarkets of shoppers and cause grave danger to the stability of the national grid when they finish.

Rinse and Repeat

It can seem as if every ‘new’ show is simply a rehash of an earlier format – the reality TV game show boom which started with Big Brother has spawned any number of variations on the theme. So has Pop Idol. Even Come Dancing, which originally ran from 1949 intermittently until 1998 was reinvented in 2004 as Strictly Come Dancing and has become a global phenomenon under the name Dancing with the Stars.

Amongst those with disabilities, the elderly and others who are at home most of the time, such programming is popular. Ideal as background noise, the simple format and swirling colours of Strictly Come Dancing appeal to everyone from hassled mums looking for a moment or two of relaxation to bored divorcees, from patients recovering from surgery or stroke to youngsters bewitched by the glitz and glamour. But to many, such output is not ‘quality’ television. They mourn the loss of the expensive costume dramas such as Pride & Prejudice or Brideshead Revisited and flocked in droves to watch Downton Abbey when it was first broadcast in 2010. For every devotee of one genre, you’ll find someone else bemoaning the wasted airtime given to such Z-list celebrities and demanding a return to the days of Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973) or Kenneth Clark’s epic Civilisation (1969). They decry the dumbing down of modern television and suggest that the soaps started the rot which has now become a terminal decline.

A Change in Lifestyle

But the change in tastes may not be all that difficult to explain. When life was more manual, less highly pressured, less technological, less connected, the main entertainment was the television. It was a place for learning, and the background for quality family time. Now, life is more hectic, stressful and demanding. Information is at our fingertips via the internet. Families are more fragmented as many move away for work. When we arrive home worn out after a 2-hour round trip commute and a seven-and-a-half hour day, we’re not ready for intellectual, edifying programming. We want the background noise that allows our minds to decompress and wander. For educational shows, instead of documentaries, we now have cookery, DIY and home makeover series.

The Documentary is not Dead, just Endangered

There is still a place for the documentary, as Michael Palin’s travel series and Sir David Attenborough’s sixty years of wildlife broadcasting will testify. But increasingly, such shows are presented by ‘a celebrity’ rather than someone with specialist knowledge of the genre. The celebrity’s presence will inflate the all-important ratings, but may not being the necessary depth of understanding. There will still be wonderful work such as Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins, Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore, but increasingly this style of programme is being replaced by shorter items which can be easily segmented by ad breaks and overdubbed into different languages when sold abroad.

The Americanisation of Television

Another influence which has caused British television to readjust its output is the success of American series. First available only on satellite, now many of the shows are just as likely to be hits on British television as they are American. Series such as Friends, Cheers, Twin Peaks, Sex and the City have all landed on screens on both sides of the Atlantic with great success. The Brits, in turn, have exported such series as Men Behaving Badly, The Office, Scrapheap Challenge (known as Junkyard Wars in the States), Who Do You Think You Are and Who Wants to be a Millionaire as well as many of the reality TV game shows.

Should PBS and Pay-per-View become Standard in the UK?

As so many consumers already have satellite TV, paying a subscription for channels not available to terrestrial TV watchers, there is an increasingly vocal argument that it is time for television companies in the UK to follow the US model, abolish the licence fee and let those who want to pay to watch do so. If popular output such as reality game shows and soap operas were made solely pay-per-view, as suggested in the comments on the BBC article above, the outcry would be loud and long, but the revenues would be astronomical. It remains to be seen whether this will ever be carried through, but the fact remains that many people believe the licence fee, currently just over £12 a month, represents very poor value for money as they feel the current schedules do not reflect their tastes in any way. They believe that only those who actually watch the programmes should pay for them, and that in effect the licence fee is a stealth tax which perpetuates the celebrity culture by allowing them to be paid extremely generous salaries for a minimum of work.

However this issue is resolved, it seems as if the debate over what constitutes quality television is as diverse as the individuals commenting upon it. It will rumble on as long as there is a television schedule to grumble at, and probably long after everything has been made on-demand, online. 

The Author: Paula Thomas is an administrator at a leading British University. She has had a fascination with words for as long as she can remember, and in the last twelve years has been able to develop these skills by writing and editing for various online publications and content providers. Her specialist subjects include retro-technology, words, transportation, British traditions and travel reviews. Paula can be contacted via her blog WordChazer's Words.

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