I don’t buy The Observer anymore because I’ve decided I can never forgive them for employing Nick Cohen or for the bullshit they pulled over MMR, which means I totally failed to notice that the lovely David Mitchell writes a column for them. It occasionally falls into the Columnist’s Great Dialectic Error of jumping from issue to opinion to exaggeration like an attention-hungry frog, but it’s mostly pretty good, especially where he expresses his horror and fear towards new media like in this section of his column from the 22nd February:
I’ve found the internet frightening from the start and spent many years in denial of the threat it poses to the established media and, by threat, of course I mean opportunity. But let’s leave opportunities to the opportunists, I used to think, and get back to working on our studio-audience sitcoms, silent movies, epic poems and morality plays – there’ll always be a market for them.
I love Mitchell for being culturally conservative and recognising the futility of conservatism at the same time: audiences and technologies develop irresistibly, but there’s still something unseemly and self-destructive in it when old media starts sniffing frantically after the novelty of the internet. And Mitchell is smart enough to acknowledge that his ambivalence comes partly from the fact that his occupations (TV actor and writer, broadsheet journo) are among the ones being squeezed hardest by internet aesthetics. From this weekend:
Teenagers are not all or even mostly morons, but almost everyone is at their least prudent and reasonable at that age. […] But I’m particularly bitter about feckless teenage spending because of the disastrous effect it’s had on television.
Television audiences are falling but not plummeting. Purely in terms of numbers, there’s no need to panic. But they are plummeting among the young, who are deserting TV in favour of new media, and the advertisers and their money are following, leaving commercial broadcasters skint. Last week ITV announced job cuts and huge losses – it’s unclear whether it will even remain a viable business in the long-term. Channel 4 is not much better off with a vast hole in its budget to fill. On the plus side, Five is also in trouble. Advertisers’ obsession with youths and their money doesn’t just cause financial problems. It also affects programming as TV executives cravenly try and tempt teenagers back. This has become BBC Three’s raison d’être even though it’s not even dependent on advertising revenue. It seems to want young viewers purely because they’re sought after by its competitors. And the programmes that are produced by this demographic thinking are so often shit.
Lily Allen’s show, Lily Allen and Friends, on which I was once a guest, was a hopelessly misconceived attempt by older producers to appeal to the young. Emptily flashy and effortfully flippant, it made the cardinal error of constantly mentioning the internet. You might as well put up an Aldi price list in Waitrose.
Cynically targeted programming of that kind is hardly ever any good and is immediately seen through by the targets, who find it patronising: “Here’s your first bike without stabilisers – soon you’ll be ready to watch proper programmes.” Proper programmes are what they want like the rest of us. However irresponsibly they spend their money, teenagers will still watch dramas that are gripping, comedies that are funny, documentaries that are interesting and reality shows that you can’t turn off even though they make you hate yourself.
It’s not just the big TV channels who are struggling to live on advertising at the moment, of course, and if YouTube or Twitter suddenly decide that their business models need to include ‘making money’ I’ll suddenly find myself with a hell of a lot more time to waste. But what Mitchell’s right about is how much of the damage to the TV channels seems to be self-inflicted, regardless of the advertising squeeze. Fatally, the networks have been trying to rub some of the internet’s new-media glamour onto their shabbiest product and neglecting the qualities which can make big, lumbering old media worth the big, lumbering money it costs to create. If the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five decide that the best way to compete with online media is by offering the same sort of content with less flexibility and at greater expense, then they deserve to fail. And if the networks kill off glorious things like Peep Show in the process, then they thoroughly deserve to die out themselves.