John Ellis defends popular television against accusations of 'dumbing down' Television is not what it was. It is no longer the exclusive preserve of Oxbridge graduates producing magisterial overviews of human life, nor is it obsessed with notions of balance. Instead, it's a riot of viewpoints, often crudely argued, all jostling for attention.
So does this mean that television has dumbed down? Far from it. Television has thrown off many of the constraints of its early development, when it was a scarce resource to be used wisely by carefully selected individuals: a Lord Kenneth Clark, a Robin Day or an Alan Wicker. Now its crowded channels give us the likes of Lily Savage, Video Nation, Jerry Sadowitz, Ruby Wax and Jeremy Paxman.
Television has moved from an era of scarcity to an era of availability. It is more relaxed about who is allowed on to say what, and what they are allowed to talk about. The range of human concerns now paraded on television is far wider than it was at the end of the 1970s. It can no longer be criticised for conforming to a 'dominant ideology' as it was then. Television now puts a positive value on dissent and on originality of viewpoint. It searches out the iconoclastic and controversial, filling the daytime schedules with bizarre emotional tangles. This has gone so far that some critics accuse it of ignoring so-called mainstream views, and of provoking confrontation where only mild disagreement exists.
A huge change has happened over the past 20 years without anybody really noticing. Compared to the beginning of the 1980s - the time when Channel 4 was founded - drama, soap opera, news and documentary all stretch far further than they used to, well beyond the experience of 'normal citizens' and the agenda of any political party. Much of human life is here. Of course there are still groups and ideas excluded from television, or at least from the primetime evening hours on the main networks. But beyond these last beleaguered bastions of consensus television, television's basic principle seems to have changed from 'we're not allowing them on to our channel' to 'the more the merrier...so long as it's within the law'.
Television has changed because its audience has changed. Gone are the days when people discussed the previous evening's programmes, confident that they would have watched the same things. We now have to check whether we watched the same programmes, and, if not, we have to offer each other a brief synopsis. Recent figures showed that only about 10 per cent of the audience will watch more than one episode of a four-part documentary series.
Viewers are more selective. They have to be. There's too much to select from. So it's very rare to find the majority of the population watching the same programme. But television is still there for us all, mediating the world outside into our homes, sharing the sense of the everyday with us, and available whenever we want to watch. As a result, it tends to return over and over to the same areas of interest and concern, the general topics of the day.
But every time, it has to do it differently. Even though we miss the vast majority of television programmes, we still hate nothing so much as a repeat. Television has to be new, up to date and part of the day today. We still want television to be our contemporary, sharing the present moment with us. Repeats come from the past. Apart from indulging our sense of nostalgia, we want nothing of them. So every time television comes back to the big and small questions that concern its audiences, it has to do so in a fresh guise. New people talk, new stories are told, new formats explore the same perennial areas.
There is a constant flow of programmes on channel after channel, so no one television programme can even aspire to being definitive. Each programme will reach its own conclusion, presenters will try to wrap up each discussion and writers will try to create an ending to their stories. But there is always more to be said, or the same things to be said differently.
Television has begun to take on a new social role. Instead of telling us what to think, it is showing us more and more possible ways of thinking. A lot of television talk now consists of speculation - 'what will happen next?' (as the newscaster always asks the correspondent on the spot), and 'what would the reaction be?', 'what if they had...?', and so on. Television is a riot of explanation and speculation from a wide variety of viewpoints.
Television is now a process of 'working through', in a term that I borrow from psychoanalysis - a long and open process of looking at things from many different ways in many different formats, both factual and fictional. Any one programme or appearance is simply a contribution to this open process, a process which does not seek to arrive at a consensus. Rather it simply exhausts a topic. In doing so, it makes what was initially worrying about it become acceptable or at least tolerable.
So it's not surprising that television is full of programmes which revolve around questions of personal morality and behaviour, lifestyle and choices. In a diverse society, television's role is one of allowing us to see things from behind those closed front doors and closed faces. In working through rather than defining, television has an important role in promoting social cohesion and mutual tolerance.
John Ellis is an independent TV producer and a professor at Bournemouth University. His book Seeing Things: television in the age of uncertainty will be published by IB Tauris in September
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999