'Tell me a story' replaces 'Here is the news'
Granada's winning pitch for ITV's new 60 Minutes slot says that current affairs programmes need to 'catch up' with docusoaps. Claire Fox thinks otherwise
Many allegations of 'dumbing down' in TV smack of snobbery. It is irritating that every time a newsreader uses a regional accent or a traditional programme changes its set or logo, or at every mention of the Jerry Springer show, somebody yells 'dumbing down!'.
So I was originally sceptical about critics of Granada's decision to end its current affairs programme World in Action. It has been a long time since World in Action systematically exposed corruption in high places and longer since it was compulsory viewing. Granada won the bid to replace World in Action with 60 Minutes, a current affairs programme promising quality journalism and serious reporting with a new, fresh approach. Could this be a 'wising up' of factual programming?
It seems not. The Granada bid - as outlined in a document titled 'A fresh start for ITV current affairs', which was leaked to the Guardian in January - suggests that the new world of current affairs is taking its lead from programmes such as Hotel and Driving School. Citing the popularity of docusoaps the document states, 'Now it is time for current affairs to catch up'. When the concern is to 'catch up' to docusoaps, it seems hard to envisage the outcome being anything other than a real dumbing down.
At the heart of Granada's project - and a theme flagged up by all the factual departments from the BBC to Channel 5 - is how to make a current affairs show with mass appeal. Trying to make current affairs popular rather than the exclusive preserve of news junkies is a reasonable objective. Factual broadcasting - or for that matter written journalism - is no easy challenge at the end of this century, as viewers' disengagement with politics is reflected in declining audience figures for more traditional current affairs formats.
Against this, the challenge is surely to make your investigations and analysis gripping enough to capture an audience. From the content of the leaked report, however, it seems that winning people over to new and challenging ideas is not high on Granada's agenda. More, its concern appears to be to pander to the perceived limitations of an audience assumed to be pretty mindless.
Granada's controller of factual programmes, Charles Tremayne, rather defensively explained the move from World in Action to the new magazine format: 'We realised we could do more foreign and political stories because we could surround the less popular with the more popular...we could still be relevant to people's lives but also irreverent to the people who control our lives.' Sorry Charles, but this statement shows irreverence only to the viewers. Hoping to sneak in the serious bits, surrounded by candyfloss, suggests a rather stupid viewing public.
The key issue is Granada's attitude to its audience. I don't mind the declaration that Granada wants to move away from static desks and studio current affairs, but I object to its explanation that 'we need to make current affairs less threatening to younger viewers'. Do the report's authors really believe that young people will only 'get it' if the presenter wears trainers or speaks in street language? Most young people are capable of working out that there is more to ideas than style.
In any case, why has Granada decided to make young people, who allegedly are intimidated by a suit, a serious story and complex ideas, its core audience model? Like Granada's favoured grown-up audience - 'the less committed current affairs viewers' - they are easy targets. To reach them, the programme 'must avoid becoming a slave to the news agenda' because of the danger of 'providing extended reports on topics that often lack mass appeal' (leave that to Newsnight and Channel 4 News, they say - snipe).
Using audience surveys, Granada says that 'one of the problems of the traditional single-issue current affairs programme is that...the subject matter determines the size of the audience. If the viewers are not interested in the subject, they won't watch the programme. The benefit of a multi-item magazine is that viewers will be attracted by a consistent mix of light and shade'. This pick'n'mix attitude to ideas avoids deciding what is most important, instead giving everything equal weight - and apparently a pretty light weight at that.
Tremayne claims that 'investigations don't have to be "big bang" exposés, but "drip, drip" campaigns similar to the early Insight stories at the Sunday Times' (Guardian 'Media', 14 December 1998). But the Sunday Times invested long-term and expensive resources into stories, many of which never saw the light of day if they did not come up to scratch factually. The 'drip, drip' referred to by Tremayne seems to be a decline of standards and substance.
When Granada concludes that its audience would be turned off by another long item on the peace process in Ireland, it suggests instead a human-interest item of a week in the life of Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam. Forget a scientific investigation into CJD, with critical analysis of its causes - instead spend a week with parents caring for a teenage daughter with CJD. It seems that big issues are to be reduced to 'relevant' human-centred dramas of empathy, and analysis replaced by feeling. Many of Granada's journalists are still keen to cover the big stories of the week; but the only way they can see to do that is by dressing up the topic in that which requires no understanding - emotional storytelling.
'A fresh start for ITV current affairs' also implies that long items - that last, say, 60 minutes - are dull, while short soundbite items will be interesting. But in TV terms, the most interesting programmes often grip you because of the in-depth, thorough nature of the material. The current affairs tradition differs from news in that it allows for more reflection, more investigation, and an intelligent commentary on issues in the news - less immediate than what happened today, less superficial than headlines. It's a good job that the World in Action team who exposed the Poulson corruption scandal did it back in the 1970s, or they would only get 10 minutes and be told not to bore the audience with too much information.
The key word used in 'A fresh start for ITV current affairs' is 'accessibility', meaning that current affairs should be accessible to the masses. But in the programme makers' attempt at widening access, they have lost sight of what it is they want people to gain access to. They promise the antithesis of current affairs, flagging up typical magazine items like an investigation into what it is really like in a women's prison, to be screened during the week of Deirdre's conviction in Coronation Street, or a day in the life of a lottery jackpot winner. My favourite suggestion has more in common with games shows than news: 'When Lord Irvine says you can't find his £300-a-roll Pugin wallpaper at the DIY store we could put it to the test - Fads, Do-it-All and Texas...told us they could run up a duplicate. We take our own 'Master of the Rolls' - 'Big Ritchie' Aspinal from Liverpool's Garston Wallpaper Centre - to do voxpops...asking passers-by if they can tell the difference.'
Short Richard and Judy-style items are a fine background to doing the hoovering. But claiming to be a news/current affairs programme and using the same criteria seems little more than a redefinition scam. Redefine current affairs as relevant human-interest stories which 'tap into the everyday concerns...of our audience', presented by GMTV-style presenters who tell funny stories and play games, get a big audience who see it as mildly entertaining - then claim you are making serious journalism for the masses.
The Granada document's emphasis on 'personalised journalism' is telling. It quotes 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt's formula for success: 'Four words every kid knows - "Tell me a story".' It seems that Granada's version of 60 Minutes, which it is rumoured will be called something like Tonight with Trevor McDonald, will give us 'real people' - correspondents with names and faces who will 'tell the stories' instead of authoritative presenters in the studios or the 'remote voices from the sky' with their 'essays' or 'missions to explain'. The danger is that the presenter becomes the celebrity, their feelings get mixed up with the facts, and the content of the story becomes of secondary interest. In any case, Hewitt's image of nice friendly people telling us tales sounds more Jackanory than even John Craven's Newsround.
The emphasis of Granada's report is that changes in TV are breaking the hold of elitism. Likewise, on page 39 of this issue of LM, John Ellis talks of the move away from 'magisterial overviews of human life' and celebrates the 'riot of viewpoints'; Granada talks of a live multi-item show with no remote voices from the sky. I am not nostalgic for the dinner-jacketed BBC presenters of yesteryear, I do not believe that many of today's harmless and sometimes amusing programmes herald the end of civilisation as we remember it, and I am excited by many of the possibilities presented by the new TV. But I object to the assumptions behind some of the shifts in factual programming.
In particular, much of the discussion about 'people's TV' implies that the old elites could cope with big ideas, objective analysis and balanced reporting. The modern populace, on the other hand, are associated with a hotchpotch relativism of views, where nothing is known, where Lily Savage is as good as Robin Day, and where Jeremy Paxman is replaced by friendly, safe and soft human presenters we can relate to.
To sit back and allow current affairs programmers to treat their viewers with such disdain really would be dumb.
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999