Tuesday 28 February 2006

They think it's all over

They think it’s all over – no, don’t turn over, I’m not banging on about the collapse of Western civilisation, but the end of television. Something that many of you might regard, on the face of it, as a positive and indeed civilising development.

While the end of television is both more imminent and more certain than our destruction by global warming, it’s only fair to add that I’m talking about the end of television as we know it. Video entertainment will continue to grow, becoming ever more ubiquitous - on your computer and mobile phone as well as on those flat screens installed in virtually every room of your home, and in lifts, taxis, trains, buses … the list appears almost endless.

Programming too will become infinitely more diverse, as all of us are forced, whether we like it or not, to become multi-channel digital viewers. The great analogue signal switch-off begins as soon as 2008 in the Border TV region and, by the time it is completed, BBC1 is expected to command an audience less than half of what it is today.

The implications for defenders of the licence fee are obvious. And with more and more viewers owning time-shift recording devices that enable them to eliminate advertising, mainstream commercial broadcasters also face an uncertain future. Hence the growing interest in opportunities for product placement in soaps and the like, rather than traditional ads.

Did you know that CBS in the States have already commissioned the first ‘mobi-soap’ – a soap opera filmed in 3-5 minute segments, specifically designed to be watched on mobile phones?

Neither did I till I attended an excellent lecture at the Royal Grammar School by the distinguished producer and director Tom Gutteridge. While I may have distorted some of the above facts, before writing this I have at least had the benefit of listening to someone who knows what he is talking about, rather than simply making it all up as per usual.

Tom was a contemporary of mine at the RGS, where his highest achievements were editing the school magazine and winning the fifth form reading prize. (For reading aloud, that is. If they’d handed out prizes for sitting in a corner reading, particularly during games lessons, I’m sure I’d have been unbeatable.)

But unlike most of us, he went on to greater things, inspired by his hero worship of the legendary Mike Neville and Wacky Jackie. He produced such great programmes as The Hot Shoe Show, Challenge Anneka and Robot Wars. Not to mention the most expensive single TV show ever made, the $3m Torvill & Dean epic Fire and Ice. A venture which apparently turned a profit despite the sticky moment when a white-faced US mogul saw the thongs worn by the fire dancers, and pronounced, ‘On American TV, we don’t do buttocks.’

It’s unlikely Tom will read this, as he currently lives in LA, but if he does I hope he realises that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

Getting back to the end of television as we know it, what does it mean for you? Well, it means smaller, segmented audiences which in turn means smaller budgets. Sad news for those of us who are seduced to the box mainly by spectacular costume dramas. (Though, having seen Bamburgh standing in for both Tilbury and Ireland in the BBC’s recent Virgin Queen, I wonder if the days of big budgets aren’t already well and truly over.)

For soap fans, it probably means paying for mobile phone downloads if you want to see the full story, with teasers played on the big screen.

On the news it means more input from ‘citizen broadcasters’, like those survivors of the July 7 bombings who captured the aftermath on their mobile phones.

For all of us, it means a vastly increased choice of programmes, and fewer that we actually want to watch. That’s not an informed, second hand opinion, but I reckon it’s the right way to bet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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