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Only connect?

Claire Fox thinks that people would prefer good TV to 'People's TV'

The buzzwords in TV today seem to be focus groups, viewer power and 'the People'. ITV has relaunched itself as 'the people's channel' and the BBC claims to have based its new news format on the views of 7500 people it surveyed. What is TV's new love affair with 'the People' all about? There were some clues at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (GEITF) in August.

The GEITF is the top TV industry event. Debates are specialised, panels and audiences are made up of insiders and experts, and attendance is closely restricted. Yet this year's festival was subtitled 'Television v the People' and claimed to put 'the viewer at the very heart of the festival debate'. The introductory blurb proclaimed that, 'At last, television is on its knees to the viewer', and noted that docu-soaps mean that 'today's stars of the small screen are ordinary people'.

It seems unlikely that ordinary folk and their opinions are really of any more interest than they ever were to many programme makers; when they are listened to at all it tends to be selectively. But the claim to be looking to 'the People' for a lead does say a lot about the loss of direction and fear of making decisions among those running the TV industry.

Why, for example, were 12 Radio Times readers, of mixed races, ages and sexes, wheeled on to the stage at the GEITF as a 'People's Jury'? It seemed like a new commitment to listening TV. Every time somebody from the People's Jury spoke a hushed silence filled the auditorium, a sort of false fawning and respect. The chosen 12 were put on a pedestal, cordoned off behind regal red cord, the only delegates given a reserved area in The George Hotel's lobby. But really they were patronised. They were outsiders to the media world, and they were made to feel it. In the session on the news one member of the panel made a long aside to explain how news is made. It felt like sitting in a media studies class.

Nobody really listened to the jury unless they said what the TV insiders wanted them to say. When one juror asked why TV hadn't explained the response to Princess Diana's death as the spirit of God moving 'the People', there was an awkward silence and the odd snigger. The Scottish female football-fan juror (in a wheelchair), who was 'empowered by being given a voice' as she denounced pay-TV sport, was much courted; expect to see her fronting some daytime programme soon. But it was the juror who endorsed Sky who is most likely to have his views endorsed in the post-festival business meetings. I was amused to hear that 11 of the 12 jurors thought there was too much regulation. Both the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Independent Television Commission listened to the jury, but I doubt they are about to disband to accommodate 'the People's wishes'.

The most telling session was when the People's Jury returned their 'verdict' on the final Monday morning. This session was poorly attended (it clashed with hangovers and the TV festival's own docu-soap on itself - talk about TV eating itself). The jurors were on the stage this time, but the fact that it was chaired by Esther Rantzen made it clear: this was daytime TV, and the jury was to be treated with the same mixture of exaggerated concern and contempt as the panels on Kilroy or Vanessa. At one point Esther turned the spotlight and microphone on me, as the delegate from LM who had earlier in the festival dared to disagree with the concept of the People's Jury. Now Esther demanded: 'Explain yourself to these people...you think you know better than them.'

I was meant to curl up and apologise. But who to? I had no beef with the jurors themselves. Their comments were often more witty, articulate and interesting than those of many TV chiefs. The issue is not whether the People's Jury - or viewers in general - are either stupid or intelligent. My criticism was of the GEITF organisers, for dreaming up their 'one we made earlier' real-live people idea.

The People's Jury may have existed in the flesh, but the jurors were used as cardboard cut-outs, to be pointed to as convenient cover for decisions which nobody would own up to. Rather than respond to criticisms the organisers could point at those on the stage and say 'don't blame us - ask "the People"'. This hiding-behind-the-skirt tactic is a general problem with the concept of People's TV. It reflects an industry that has so little bottle that those at the top continually have to cite those on the outside to justify what they are doing on the inside. Nobody will take responsibility for decisions made, for the programmes we watch, for regulating what we see, without resorting to some focus group or audience survey.

When the festival pack argues that the People's Jury 'will keep us (professionals) on course', it reflects not just an unaccustomed modesty but a real loss of confidence. TV as an institution is no longer sure what its role should be; but agenda-setting is definitely out. There seems to be a fear of asserting greater knowledge in case you are accused of elitism. Today, viewer power means 'no more carbolic soap programming, administered because we think it is good for them. No more self-indulgent scheduling'. Jonathan Palmer, a producer/director who helped select the jury, explained that 'the festival has decided to let in 12 "ordinary" members of the audience with a mission - to tell us what they think we should be doing'. But if the jury has to tell the directors which direction to go in, and the producers what to produce, then what are the professionals for?

Even a defence of higher standards in TV tends to be couched in terms of what the viewers want. For example, the BBC's new 'Programme strategy review' concluded that viewers do not want dumbed-down news, presenters without ties (a la Channel 5) or the avoidance of difficult subjects. It is as though these points could not be made without the endorsement of 'the People'.

More than anything else, the impulse behind today's viewer-friendly programming appears to be a fairly desperate attempt to connect with an audience. 'Connecting' is the only principle anybody can agree on. It means either touching a nerve with people (hence today's one guaranteed news value - emotionalism), or making everything 'relevant' to the more banal aspects of people's everyday lives. It is no coincidence that ITV's new logo is a whirling heart and its new slogan 'TV from the heart'. And for all the talk of upholding standards at the BBC, Tony Hall, the chief executive of news, says that: 'If people don't make the connections between their own lives and events in the world beyond, then it's partly because we are failing...to understand what moves them, failing to explain the relevance of that issue or event.'

What 'connecting' actually results in is more inane TV, as typified by the new spate of fly-on-the-wall documentaries or docu-soaps. Docu-soaps can be entertaining stuff, but they reflect a significant shift away from the original aim of fly on the wall, which was an attempt to expose the hidden truth about institutions such as the police or the civil service. Roger Graef's recent Breaking The Rules, about the probation service, was a reminder of how valuable a technique this can be in making the audience see things differently and in challenging a consensus view. But where 'fly' documentaries were once motivated by an investigative journalist's desire to reveal the secret workings of society to the public, now the camera focuses on the public, with little to say about society. Today's docu-soaps serve up images of ourselves - Maureen in Driving School, Eileen in Hotel, neighbours and shop assistants, vets and pet owners - a sort of Teletubbies for adults.

'We know no better than you' sounds egalitarian, but those whose job it is to investigate and analyse current affairs should surely know more about their subject than those who rely on TV as a source of information. And if the only drama we see is based on the existing views of focus groups, rather than skilled drama departments who read all the new programme ideas and use their expertise to choose the best, then we will end up with narrow fare.

At worst, for those running TV, looking to 'the People' can become the excuse for sloppy standards. If you are frightened to challenge the public, or no longer know what set of values should inform your work, give 'the People' what you think they want, what they will certainly feel comfortable with - themselves. And if it is rubbish? 'Don't blame me - they deserve what they watch. We asked them.'

Claire Fox is director of Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?, to be held at the Riverside Studios from 5-7 March 1999. For further information call (0171) 269 9223

BBC2's The Royle Family: people watching TV about people watching TV

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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