Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Saturday night television

I'd been planning to review some films before now, but frankly, 16 Blocks and Mission: Impossible 3 aren't that inspiring to write about. 16 Blocks is a solid but ultimately disposable B-movie where Bruce Willis tries to help a witness get to court, leading to a character arc straight out of Robert McKee's screenwriting manual and a gloriously contrived final act twist. It's quite good fun, but by god you can see the strings. Mission: Impossible 3 features lots of things blowing up, which is fun, as well as some character moments so awkward that they've got to be some kind of rib on the actors. ("When I lost my kitten, I said a special prayer..." "Will you teach it to me?") Brick and Confetti are on my "to see" list, although whether I'll get around to them is another matter.

So let's leave aside any pretence of art for the moment, and take a look at mainstream TV. Last Saturday was a bad day for ITV1, at least going by the ratings. They got comprehensively mauled during the daytime, with their lowest ever audience share of 5%. Yes, granted, the FA Cup final was on BBC1, but there's got to be more than 5% of the population who don't follow football. (In fact, a third of the viewing public were off watching satellite and cable channels.) Then again, ITV weren't even really trying - a repeat of The Rockford Files? On Britain's flagship commercial network? In 2006? They made marginally more of an effort in the evening, but still got trashed. This Saturday should be just as bad for ITV, since BBC1 has the notoriously unmissable Eurovision Song Contest, a show so bizarre that I'll explain it for the benefit of American viewers later in the week.

Even ITV management admit that the schedule needs a desperate overhaul, although so far the only evidence is the long overdue axing of some shows that have been clogging up the daytime schedule for ages. (Weekday daytime is a particular disaster for ITV. Their only recent success was The Paul O'Grady Show, and he jumped to Channel 4 the moment his contract expired. ITV was reduced to running repeats of his own show against him - not exactly their finest hour.)

But daytime is far from their only problem. Look at last Saturday's schedules, and compare BBC1 and ITV1. It's painful.

A few years ago, the fashionable thing to say about Saturday night TV was that the family audience was a thing of the past. Back in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the television to enjoy Morecambe & Wise, but now there were many other things to do, and the mass family audience had disappeared. There's a degree of truth to this - TV audiences have generally gone down over the last few decades - but also a lot of excuse-making. Somewhere during the 1980s, broadcasters became convinced that "family entertainment" was a euphemism for children's programmes shown in the early evenings. On this model, "family entertainment" doesn't actually entertain the family. It entertains younger kids, while everyone else sits around with pained smiles and pretends they're enjoying a bonding experience. Combine that with an increased focus on chasing younger viewers, and the genre ended up rather neglected.

In the last few years, however, the BBC and ITV have rediscovered the knack of, you know, actually entertaining the general public. ITV have a simple formula for family entertainment: take basic format, add Ant & Dec. If Ant & Dec aren't available, then clone one of their formats, change it very slightly, and give it to Kate Thornton. This accounts for Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Pop Idol, Popstars, The X-Factor, I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Ant & Dec's Gameshow Marathon - which is a pretty comprehensive list of all ITV's recent hit entertainment shows. Unfortunately, they don't have any Ant & Dec shows on the air at the moment.

Virtually everything else they've attempted has been a horrendous disaster. Celebrity Wrestling defied both description and belief, while Rock Around The Block offered the spectacle of families competing to see who could do the best cover version of 1980s pop songs in front of an audience of bemused neighbours. (A high point of the series was the utter wrongness of an underage boy performing "Baby's Got Back" with the assistance of his teenage sister.) Neither show completed its run.

The BBC, in contrast, have done rather better. Consider Saturday night's schedule, with explanations for the benefit of American readers.

6.00. Strictly Dance Fever. You know Dancing With The Stars? Well, that's an adaptation of BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing (a title that assumes you've heard of both Strictly Ballroom and Come Dancing, and therefore doesn't work outside Britain). Strictly Dance Fever is the spin-off version featuring members of the public. Obviously the basic format of these shows is thoroughly familiar by now - audition shows, judges, token nasty judge, public vote, unnecessarily convoluted voting system, results revealed at an excruciating crawl. The BBC has also taken some stick for signing Graham Norton from Channel 4 at enormous cost and then getting him to front a talent show because they couldn't think of anything else to do with him.

But Strictly Come Dancing itself was a genuinely bold move. Ballroom dancing hosted by the superannuated Bruce Forsyth? When I first heard of it, I thought it was the stupidest idea I'd ever heard. Yet it was a massive hit, simply by using the established reality-show formula to sell ballroom dancing the masses, and tapping into an unexpectedly large audience for that kind of thing - specifically, all those middle aged and older viewers that broadcasters had been ignoring for years. It seems obvious now, sure, but at the time a ballroom dancing show in primetime appeared utterly bizarre. And Bruce Forsyth hosting anything seemed borderline suicidal. (I still think he's rather at odds with the modern world, to be honest, but the ratings speak for themselves.)

7.00 Doctor Who. Again, it looks like a sure thing in retrospect, but until the recent revival Doctor Who was cemented in the public consciousness as a bit of a joke. The BBC had never exactly lost sight of it, and continued to churn out increasingly fannish and continuity-obsessed novels at a rate of one a month. (The final one, Lance Parkin's Gallifrey Chronicles, attempts to reconcile multiple strands of continuity, guest stars K9, alludes to The Curse of Fatal Death and an obscure BBC webcast as potentially canonical, attempts to undo another writer's earlier novel, features a complicated metatextual conceit about a long-running series of dull science-fiction novels, and generally scores a zero on the accessibility meter. Mind you, it's not like they expected anyone outside fandom to buy it.)

But to the general public, Doctor Who meant cheap sets, cheaper costumes, and a B-list character actor running up and down a corridor. There was some lingering affection for the Tom Baker run in the 1970s, but it was basically downhill from then on. Really, Doctor Who had been screwed once the big-budget science fiction movie came along. Before then, nobody really expected such shows to look convincing, and a passable stage set would do. After Star Wars, people wanted pseudo-realism, and you can't do that on a BBC budget. Worse still, they made the attempt - one 1980s show features a stolen Concorde crashing on a prehistoric plain of dinosaurs, and you can imagine for yourself how bad that looked.

With advances in CGI, it's now possible to make Doctor Who look relatively decent on a realistic budget. True, some ropey effects have slipped through, but we're now back at the stage where you can make this show and do it properly. And they are in fact trying to do it properly, not treating it as a homage to the original series, or wasting time on fan-friendly references, or playing it as an obvious joke. They're just doing Doctor Who straight, and getting huge audiences from it. It steamrollers everything in its path. The stories may irritate sci-fi purists - Russell T Davies has never struck me as the greatest writer in the world - and I could live without the incessant and obnoxious plugging of the show on the BBC News website. But it genuinely works as family entertainment.

7.45. The National Lottery - Jet Set. Ah. Into every life a little rain must fall. The BBC acquired the rights to the National Lottery draw a few years ago and have been trying to work out what to do with it ever since. For some reason they won't just stick it between shows, and they insist on trying to build an entire gameshow around it. These gameshows are never any good, but dammit, they just won't give up.

8.20. Casualty. Casualty, the UK's answer to ER, has been running since 1986 - which, strictly speaking, makes ER America's answer to Casualty. It's rubbish, of course. It's been rubbish for years, ever since they defanged the original political content and turned it into a "household accident of the week" show. (Unlike ER, Casualty insists on showing you how the patients got hurt. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that no dramatic justification is required for patients to arrive at a hospital.) Over the years the show has slowly mutated into 50% soap opera and 50% mutilation of random guest stars, presented at 50% of ER's speed. But twenty years on, it's still hanging in there, and it's even spawning spin-offs.

I haven't watched a whole episode of Casualty in years, but it still packs in the viewers. It's a safe show, perhaps, but a useful lynchpin for the Saturday night schedule. And at least it's a more flexible format than many long-running drama shows.

9.10. Strictly Dance Fever results. Yes, this takes half an hour.

9.40. News.

10.00. The Hunted. A film with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, apparently, so it can't be that bad.

Is this a classic night's television? Not particularly, but it's perfectly strong one. And now, compare ITV.

5.55. You've Been Framed! One of those shows that requires an exclamation mark in the title to remind you that it's meant to be entertaining. This is a repeat, by the way, allowing you another chance to watch a small child fall over to the accompaniment of canned hilarity. I hate this show with a passion. It's a lazy piece of time-killing and the epitome of "That'll Do" programme-making. Harry Hill presents it at the moment, which baffles me, because he's a genuinely good comedian, and this is utterly beneath him. You've Been Framed has been on the air for sixteen years, and it stopped being funny with episode three.

6.20. X-Men. The original film from six years ago. A bit ambitious for the Saturday night schedule, if you ask me - the film's almost two hours long once you insert ad breaks. Which means you're asking the viewers to commit a lot of time. You can get away with that if it's Harry Potter or Star Wars, but not X-Men. Sunday night, maybe. Bank holiday, perhaps. Saturday night? No. It's there to fill a giant hole where the programmes should be.

8.10. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Running since 1998 and a lynchpin of the ITV schedule, but long past its prime on any view. And the ratings reflect that. It does alright, but it's not what you'd call essential viewing any more. To be fair, nor is Casualty over on BBC1, but at least it's still packing them in. Casualty got 7.5m on Saturday; National Lottery Jet Set got 7m. WWTBAM got 3.9m, and it was the highest rated programme of the night. When it's getting beaten almost 2 to 1 by a show that's been on the air for 20 years, it's possibly time to pension it off.

9.10. Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File. Dennis Norden - or, as British people call him, "Isn't he dead?" - has been doing semi-witty links on clipshows for as long as I can recall. (According to Wikipedia, he's been doing them since 1977, which is indeed longer than I can recall.) I say "semi-witty" because they have the general shape of humorous remarks without ever actually being entertaining. Norden was a successful comic scriptwriter for decades, but he's never been more than a genial TV presence, and he's long past his prime. Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File - presumably so-called to distinguish it from any other 13th Laughter Files he might have recorded - is basically just a load of random clips presented for your mild amusement.

There are worse ways to spend an hour. There are also many, many better ways. It's difficult to imagine anyone saying "Ooh, Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File - let's turn over and watch that." It's just a schedule-filler, and seeing it turn up on a Saturday primetime schedule seems painfully desperate. Norden announced his retirement a few weeks back, at the age of 84. Knowing ITV, they're probably already hunting for a new host.

If this is the best ITV can come up with, it's no wonder they're getting trounced. And that's just comparing it with BBC1. They were also up against a documentary about The Da Vinci Code on Channel 4, and The English Patient on BBC2.

The BBC have basically got it right; it's not the most thrilling or experimental night of television, but nor should it be. ITV is basically marking time between Ant & Dec series, and for the number one commercial broadcaster, that really won't do. Tonight's schedule is no more inspiring - three reality pop-documentary shows, and a tribute to the Prince of Wales. Whoo.

ITV keeps launching new spin-off channels - we're now up to ITV4 - but it would inspire a lot more confidence if they could work out what they want to do with ITV1.