With the cool kids loudly declaring on social media that they’ll be unwinding on a 24/7 diet of Netflix soup whilst sealed-in for the foreseeable future, the response of mainstream terrestrial television to the dramatic change in circumstances has served to underline its increasing irrelevance as a source of go-to entertainment. The abrupt cancellation of sporting fixtures that can ordinarily be depended upon to pump up the ratings has left them looking utterly clueless. When the Beeb had no ‘Match of the Day’ to broadcast last Saturday, did they think of the audience and perhaps replay a classic FA Cup Final from the archives, something that would still have featured 22 men kicking a ball about but would also have been imbued with the kind of nostalgia factor that surfaces when the future is suddenly so uncertain and the compulsion to cuddle the familiar figures highly? Of course not; they opted for a ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ double bill. Just what football fans were hoping for as they instantly changed channels.
Concerns over the coronavirus spreading through the sets of the BBC’s small elite band of long-running drama serials has provoked a swift cutting back on such productions. Thanks to that dodgy geezer by the name of Covid-19, ‘Eastenders’ has now apparently been reduced to a mere twice-weekly outing of dreary, depressing cock-er-nee gangster fetishisation, though the last time the programme came anything close to being remotely watchable was back in the days when it was restricted to Tuesdays and Thursdays. As a one-time viewer of both this show and its older Salford sibling, for me the rot really set in when the decision was made to spread them thinly over the whole working week ala cheap ‘n’ cheerful Aussie soaps.
This decision was made when the soap opera was one of the few TV genres still capable of commanding high ratings, though as viewing habits gradually altered, the schedulers failed to recognise they’d overstretched their one-time safe bet. Increasingly melodramatic and gimmicky storylines devised to desperately entice the diminishing audience – along with an influx of forgettable, interchangeable teen archetypes straight outta Hollyoaks – served to hammer the first batch of nails in the Walford and Weatherfield coffins. Perhaps the restrictions imposed by the current crisis might be a blessing in disguise for the remaining viewers; pruning the bloated beasts that ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Emmerdale’ have all become has been necessary for years, but whatever the schedulers select to replace the absent episodes could be crucial to how they fare when all this is over.
A good example was the landmark 1987 technicians’ strike at ITV’s original breakfast franchise-holder TV-am – effectively the last stand for militant unions within the television industry. As the picket-lines sought to flex the same muscles that had successfully blacked-out ITV screens for two whole months in 1979, Bruce Gyngell – the blunt Thatcherite chief executive imported from down under by Kerry Packer – substituted the normal TV-am schedule with daily repeats of the classic 60s Batman series. As TV-am was the most watched of the two breakfast shows then broadcasting on British TV, whatever replacement Gyngell had chosen would have commanded a large audience; but the relentlessly entertaining adventures of Adam West’s caped crusader proved to be a bigger hit with the viewers than the usual Anne & Nick sofa waffle. The show’s unexpected popularity was one of the first indications of a widespread appetite for vintage TV that would eventually result in whole satellite channels dedicated to it.
Whether or not they know it – and I suspect they probably don’t – both ITV and the BBC have a treasure trove of archive shows they could exhume to plug the gaps, and ones that could well capture the audience’s imagination far more than wheeling-out repeats of recent programmes nobody gave a shit about first time round. No football or rugby, no Grand National and not even the Eurovision; ‘Question Time’ forced to go ahead without a studio audience and ‘Newsnight’ having to speak to the majority of its guests via Skype or satellite link-up; production on drama scaled down or suspended. There are going to be many hours to fill and something worth watching will have to fill them if viewers are to be prevented migrating to the alternatives in droves.
With schools out for a premature summer, families cooped-up in confined spaces as though replicating the claustrophobic holiday experience on home turf are destined to rapidly get on each other’s tits; but it’s doubtful few of the Smartphone-addicted school-kids would consider turning to TV (other than the iPlayer) during their legally-endorsed truancy from the classroom. Therefore, why don’t the Beeb and ITV make available the hundreds of educational programmes both produced for decades, so that the long-neglected public service remit British TV once honoured with such dedication could be revived as a key element of its DNA?
Personally, one thing that could persuade me to switch-on during the day would be the chance to catch some classic schools programming – even some hirsute Open University outings would be welcome; and unqualified parents lumbered with home tutoring could at least point their sullen brats in the direction of ‘How We Used to Live’, ‘Watch’, ‘Look and Read’ or ‘Experiment’ as a means of educating with entertainment. The kids would probably be bemused by the alien presentation style and amused by the fashion crimes, but there’s always the outside chance they might learn something. No, I know it won’t happen anymore than the test card will make a comeback; but then, I don’t have to concern myself with any of this anyway, being spared parenthood. It’s a weird enough world when you’re on your own.
I did venture out today after a bout of self-isolation yesterday, and the effects of the public response to events were more noticeable than even just 48 hours ago. My local Sainsbury’s had all the look of a store on the last day of a closing down sale, trying to flog the few remaining items and knowing what had already gone wouldn’t be replaced. A few doors along, Wilkos didn’t even have the empty shelves where the loo rolls used to sit; they’ve stuck other goods on there now, almost as if they’ve given up on stocking toilet paper ever again. To be honest, I’ve all-but given up on ever buying it again as it is. Unfortunately, with the enforced closure of all cafés, pubs and restaurants as of tonight, supermarkets will remain the sole source of edible articles for the majority, putting even more pressure on them. I’m just hoping booze hasn’t been unduly affected in this mad rush to purchase pasta. I could really do with a drink.
© The Editor