TV TIMES

Bingewatch30-odd years ago, when satellite dishes were the latest addition to the increasingly-expanding abundance of street furniture, the allure of new television channels beyond the reach of the traditional terrestrial broadcasters prompted the girl I was living with at the time to invest in just such an alternative. We ended up with Cable TV, and despite the accompanying literature boasting about all the new shows we could now access, most of its appeal for me was as a repository for the long-forgotten programmes the old television lords and masters had dispensed with years before. There wasn’t much new material on offer that I myself found capable of piquing my curiosity – bar the novelty exhibitionism of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ long before Jeremy Kyle encouraged the Great British Underclass to wash their own dirty linen in public; but the archive channels suddenly at my fingertips were a rich source of nostalgic entertainment and also (as it was still the 90s) a strain on my limited finances due to the amount of blank VHS tapes I felt compelled to buy to preserve them on.

In the intervening decades, the innovation of the DVD box-set and the advent of YouTube have opened some of the more neglected TV vaults to the public and this is a trend that certainly seems ongoing. Spending a weekend away with all the streaming services and vintage channels I’m not able to receive at home can find me enjoying classic ‘Star Trek’ – and I can’t remember the last time that received a terrestrial outing – and Gerry Anderson’s live-action landmark, ‘UFO’ amongst numerous others. I appreciate my own personal tastes aren’t everyone’s, and many sign-up for the kind of packages offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT in order to catch the contemporary US shows that claim column inches and win awards – the sort of programmes ‘everybody’s talking about’ and so on. I’ve watched a few of these, I admit, and some are pretty good, especially when compared to the generally dismal standard of shows airing on the BBC or ITV, though I’m largely looking for an antique gem when I skim through the thousand-and-one channels listed; and I can usually find one.

During lockdown, the unexpected introduction of time on the hands of an overworked population unaccustomed to catching its breath often translated as binge-watching, whereby Netflix in particular saw a surge in subscribers eager to lose themselves in the sort of addictive mini-series it appears to churn out with effortless ease. Not being a subscriber myself, I found the aforementioned vintage shows to be my own personal source of comfort food for the eyes via the physical box-set, though my diversion was merely a manifestation of a common ailment when the world outside had suddenly taken on an unsettlingly alien element that made a retreat into a parallel universe preferable. This pattern for the populace as a whole reached a peak in 2020 and ’21, though the payback for lockdown in terms of industry and the economy grinding to an ill-advised halt has seen 2022 take on a very different tone for the viewer.

According to data released last week, this year has seen a telling reversal of the lockdown trend when it comes to subscribing to streaming services – 1.51 million subscriptions were cancelled during the first three months of 2022 as (what is already – inevitably – being called) the Cost of Living Crisis begins to bite. Despite 58% of UK homes being signed-up to one streaming service or another, 38% of those asked in a survey by market research company Kantar revealed they intended to cancel such subscriptions in order to save a few quid; the same time period also saw a noticeable decline in new subscribers. In the case of market leader Netflix, last year’s intake was approximately half of those who joined the club the year before. Evidence suggests Netflix and Amazon seem to be the last resort cancellations when others, such as Disney + or BritBox, tend to be first in line when it’s time for streaming services to walk the plank. But even the mighty Netflix is seeing its omnipotence challenged not just by competition, but by economic necessity. In 2022 so far, shares in the company have dropped by 35%, with over $50bn wiped off Netflix’s market value.

Still a relatively recent phenomenon in TV-land, streaming has followed a route all innovations on the small screen have followed, whether colour television, the home VCR, satellite, cable or the DVD, in that it had a rapid take-off, marched into the nation’s homes with a seemingly unstoppable pace, and has now levelled out a little, finding its feet and its permanent place as a steady option for the viewer. There was bound to be a slowing down eventually, and the expected incursion of competition for audiences was inevitable; less so the pandemic, which undoubtedly aided the rise of streaming in the first place and has now contributed to the abrupt halt of its speedy ascent. As a lazy leisure pursuit, watching the telly has been with us now for longer than most of us have been alive, yet compared to food or heating our homes it remains something of a luxury, with the additional payment required for streaming services a further indulgence that the current economic crisis has indeed forced some subscribers to confront as a luxury and to prioritise accordingly.

Globally, Netflix’s total subscribers have fallen by 200,000 this year and experts predict a further two million will follow suit by the summer. The post-pandemic economic situation has evidently been a factor in this, whilst many feel the excess of streaming choice is simply too much when the working-from-home aspect that fuelled the astronomical surge in subscription to streaming means there’s less time available to binge than there was a couple of years ago. Analyst Michael Hewson said, ‘Netflix’s wider problem, along with the rest of the sector, is that customers don’t have unlimited funds and that one or two subscriptions is usually enough. Once you move above that, something has to give in a cost-of-living crisis, and while Netflix is still the market leader, it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of Apple, Amazon or Disney, which makes it much more vulnerable to a margin squeeze.’

Even taking into account the unusual circumstances which facilitated Netflix’s rise to its apogee of popularity, it could only realistically go so far before its progress eased up a little. As things stand, it’s still ahead of the game with 220 million subscribers and constant flow of shows that excite TV reviewers, Twitter and audiences alike in its upgraded equivalent of ‘water-cooler television’. The quarterly growth Netflix has experienced ever since 2011 couldn’t be sustained forever, and price increases have also played their part in prompting a partial exodus from the service, costing it 600,000 subscribers across North America; Netflix’s voluntary withdrawal from the profitable Russian market due to Ukraine has clearly done a fair bit of damage, too – with the loss of 700,000 Russian subscribers to date. Mind you, the price increases have probably aided revenue, which has continued to grow despite everything.

For me, streaming services are something friends tend to have, and I don’t say that as a roundabout way of pleading poverty either. It’s a bit like how friends had toys I didn’t as a child, in that it doesn’t unduly bother me; I was content to play with them when in their presence, but I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I didn’t have them as well. I don’t mind watching some of these talked-about shows if I happen to be at the house of someone who does subscribe – or if someone kindly bungs them on a memory stick for me; but I find I simply don’t have the time to invest in binge-watching on a regular basis. Even the DVD box-sets of vintage shows I’ve often written about tend to be viewed in daily instalments – making use of a spare hour I might have before moving on. We each have our own brand of televisual escapism, after all.

© The Editor

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SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Gas MasksThe title of this post is lifted from the 1969 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman, a song that seems to encapsulate within its grooves a moment at the end of the 1960s when the tumultuous events of 1968 hadn’t entirely exterminated the optimistic spirit of ’67. Though very much a project sponsored by the same state that was simultaneously slaughtering peasants in Vietnam, the momentous achievement of putting a man on the moon suggested the general cultural zeitgeist remained forward-looking and convinced better days were just around the corner. John Lennon expressed as much when profiled in an ATV mini-series aired in December ’69 called ‘Man of the Decade’; the belief may have been misplaced or naive, but it was genuine and heartfelt. A generation born in a collective air-raid believed a different way of doing things was possible. Imagine no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

It certainly feels as though something is again in the air in 2016, though the odours of that something are not of incense, peppermints or even napalm; I can’t really put my finger on it, but there are a lot of people I know who seem to be wading through a dense, noxious fog as dense and noxious as that which permeated every nook and cranny and rookery of Dickens’ London in the memorable opening of ‘Bleak House’. Granted, many are experiencing personal crises that aren’t necessarily specific to 2016, ones that could have happened at any moment in history, in any turbulent chapter of this planet’s story as much as in any so-called Golden Age forever recalled with nostalgic reverence. They could have taken place in 1916 or 1966, and the world outside their window wouldn’t have played any discernible role. But all of the internal events that are affecting the lives of loved ones right now appear to be synchronised with external events to an unsettling degree. Perhaps that’s the impact of the age of 24/7 social media; perhaps not.

A close friend who is finding life exceedingly heavy going at the moment said to me last week that ‘everything seems to have gone wrong since Bowie died’. I thought of the vinyl label of Bowie’s 1973 LP ‘Aladdin Sane’; the song from which the album took its title is listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’. The information contained within the brackets marks the two years prior to the twentieth century’s twin global conflicts and clearly taps into the paranoia of the time by suggesting a year in the 1970s will serve the same calm-before-the storm purpose. True, it could merely have been Bowie playing with that paranoia for artistic effect or simply reflecting his own nihilistic worldview that he took onto another apocalyptic level with 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’. But ‘Aladdin Sane’ was released just a few months before the bleak economic meltdown of the Three Day Week, an era marked by rumours of right-wing military coups instigated by MI5 and/or retired colonial colonels with private armies on one hand and left-wing communist coups instigated by Moscow on the other.

What appears to be in the air today is not so black and white, but a multi-layered mosaic of malodorous uncertainty. It is the murder of Jo Cox as well as the ongoing massacres in the US; it is the litany of unexpected celebrity deaths as well as the terrorist atrocities on the Continent; it is the failed Turkish coup d’état as well as Brexit; it is Donald Trump as well as austerity; it is Syria as well as curbs on free speech; it is incompetence and corruption in public services as well as refugees drowning at sea. Possibly because of the way in which we are able to instantly access news, to quickly switch from one horror story to another or to be bombarded by them on Facebook and Twitter even when we’re not seeking them out, they seem bigger and uglier than they ever would have seemed in the past, when limited television news bulletins and 24 hours-later newspapers exerted breathing space between each horrendous headline. It’s a theory, anyway.

Were that the root cause of events in which we have no direct involvement seeping into our individual neuroses and exacerbating them, fair enough; but I wonder why so many seem to be struggling in the first place? If we compare the comforts we can call upon to the real hardships endured by our grandparents or great-grandparents, we haven’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints. The dazzling variety of choice, whether in relation to electronic goods, TV channels, food, clothing or virtually every luxury item that constitutes an acquisitive society should suffice, yet endless choice itself can actually be quite overwhelming and incapable of filling the inexplicable inner vacuum that our forefathers seemed capable of filling without any of our fripperies.

I suppose age could play a part as well; most of my friends are over 40; I myself am careering towards 50. But recent surveys suggest the kind of social isolation that appears quite commonplace within my own demographic is as high amongst teenagers. And it’s a vicious circle. Something awful in the news drags us down when we’re already feeling low because we’ve just received some stupid bill that we can’t afford to pay, making us vulnerable sitting targets for the next horrific news event as well as the next dispiriting demand on our limited finances; it can get to the point where the internal and external are practically interchangeable as sources of anxiety and helplessness. I think a sense of helplessness is crucial too: we don’t have the money required to pay the bill and we can’t do anything to alter whatever depressing news story has invaded our private space via the mass media. Both feel as though they are ultimately out of our control.

I don’t know what the solution is. Watch less TV news and don’t regularly buy a paper? I started doing that about a decade ago, but I wasn’t online back then. It’s so much harder to avoid the big stories now. They eventually find your address. And, if you’re feeling lousy to begin with, these big bad wolves will huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house down. But one little pig did survive, of course; so maybe we should simply build with bricks and we’ll get through it.

© The Editor

THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

Carol & BubblesWhat is the worst invention ever to be inflicted upon the population? It’s a question that could lead to a myriad of answers, but I’d nominate 24-hour television as a contender. The first indications we were heading the way of America was with the beginning of breakfast TV in 1983 as Frank Bough’s chunky pullovers knocked spots off TV-am’s so-called ‘famous five’. Three years later, the BBC launched their daytime TV service along with the post-political career of Robert Kilroy-Silk, and room for the telly to breathe was narrowed further. ITV had already had a daytime service of sorts since the relaxation of broadcasting hours in 1972, taking advantage of the changes with a lunchtime line-up including ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Crown Court’, followed by the magazine show ‘Good Afternoon’, the fondly-recalled ‘Paint Along with Nancy’, a home-grown soap such as ‘General Hospital’, an imported Aussie soap such as ‘The Sullivans’, and usually a monochrome movie from the 50s. But it was the arrival of ITV’s networked through-the-night schedule in 1988 that altered the British television landscape forever.

Initially, the programmes filling this slot were oddly memorable. There were dubbed German cop shows from the 70s like ‘Tatort’ (renamed ‘Scene of the Crime’) and reruns of US series from the same decade such as ‘Night Gallery’, ‘Kojak’, and even ‘The Partridge Family’; viewers in the Yorkshire TV region may also recall ‘Jobfinder’, a uniquely tedious Ceefax-style service advertising employment opportunities in the county to the accompaniment of a Kenny G tribute act. But it was mainly the ‘yoof’ market that was catered for, with specially-made shows like ‘Night Network’, ‘The Power Hour’, and the so-bad-it’s-good ‘The Hit Man and Her’, in which Pete Waterman and Michaela Strachan attempted to conduct interviews with DJs and dancers over the deafening boom of a nightclub PA system. It took the BBC ten years to follow suit, when Princess Diana’s death in the middle of the night led to the inauguration of rolling news through to the crack of dawn, curtailing the traditional closedown as the BBC1 globe spun to the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’.

Up until the late 80s, with both BBC1 and ITV closing down before 1.00am, it was BBC2 that usually provided anyone coming home from the pub or club with something to watch, usually ‘The Open University’, with the entertainment quota coming from the fashion sense of the hirsute lecturers. Even Channel 4 was closing down in its first few years, albeit later than its established rival channels, and it didn’t come on air until the early evening as it was. The newest kid on the broadcasting block had extended its hours by the early 90s, with its very first outing into breakfast TV – not ‘The Big Breakfast’, but a news magazine show called ‘The Channel 4 Daily’, presented by a cast resembling yuppie office workers.

BBC2 was the last British terrestrial TV channel to still close down for the day late on, but the disappearance of Pages from Ceefax in 2012 quietly brought a broadcasting age to an end. However, the alternatives today fall short of the excitement many felt towards the novelty of 24-hour TV at its birth. Of course, there are the thousand-and-one digital channels that were seemingly created to view for a couple of seconds before moving onto the next, but the terrestrial options are no better. ITV has taken the cheapest possible route with interactive game-shows, giving pissed insomniacs a pretty presenter to wank over or the chance to shout out answers to questions that wouldn’t tax the brain of the average six-year-old; failing that, there are always repeats of ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ with the addition of in-vision sign-language (which must largely consist of rude gesticulations). The BBC opts for round-the-clock news, with the same headlines on a loop for what feels like forever.

This then leads into the breakfast shows and the daytime shows, all of which have successfully defined dumbing down ever since they edged educational TV off morning screens in the 80s. Bland celebrity sofa chinwags, bland quiz shows, bland soaps, bland antiques, bland cookery, bland makeover series – it’s like a TV executive decided Python’s Spanish Inquisition, with the comfy chair and cushions as instruments of torture, was a manual for television’s future. The whole daytime TV structure is a televisual version of the playlist from a local radio station; it seems there’s no space for a TV equivalent of Radio 4 until BBC4 appears in the evening. Then again, why should there be? Why does anyone even need TV during the day, anyway? Is the NHS waiting-list for lobotomies that long?

The perceived necessity of broadcasters to deny the viewer breathing space, something that also encompasses the bombardment of trailers that have effectively obliterated the time-honoured practice of end credits, is symptomatic of a culture in which standing still is a crime. It seems almost inconceivable now that for endless hours during the day through the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, the whole service would take a nap and leave viewers with an abstract image of a schoolgirl and a clown frozen in an unfinished game of noughts and crosses. As a child, I found the image mesmerising and it still induces a sense of stillness and calm whenever I catch sight of it on YouTube now. The contemporary craving for moving pictures to be accessible at any hour of the day via the gogglebox is something I can’t quite fathom, but then I’m lucky; I predate it and can cope without it. Pandora’s Box cannot be closed now, but I still believe less is more.

© The Editor