Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is factual TV made for people who don't know any facts?

Channel 4 ran a programme recently called "Spying On Hitler's Army". I watched it because it was about the bugging of high-ranking German prisoners of war at Trent Park, Cockfosters, in an old stately home where I spent four happy years at college at the end of the sixties.

I turned off the programme before it was finished, frustrated by the things that increasingly irritate me about factual TV - the way it's presented like fiction, the artistically blurry reconstructions, the way the producer has to lay out all his cards in the first few minutes, the way it reminds you of the plot after each ad break as if even your short-term memory couldn't possibly have survived a few minutes of commercials, and, most of all, the implicit assumption that the viewer's knowledge of the subject of World War II couldn't extend much further than watching "Saving Private Ryan" and having done a project about Anne Frank at school.

In the weeks since turning it off I've read a few pieces which indicate I'm not alone in no longer expecting factual TV to tell me very much. There's Brian Sewell, who's even older and crustier than me, daring to suggest that even the sainted Michael Palin's travelogues no longer pack much in the way of content. (I watched some of the latter's "Brazil" while our son was living there, hoping to get some picture of what normal life looked like and felt like for people who weren't footballers, carnival queens, picturesque German exiles or favela dwellers. I didn't get one. In "Scoop" Evelyn Waugh describes news as "what a chap who doesn't care about anything wants to read." Factual TV doesn't even require the chap to read.)

Then Tom Archer, a former senior BBC programming executive, made a speech in which he pointed out that all the power in television now is in the hands of the commissioners, who understand audiences, rather than the people who make programmes, who understand the subject.

And in case you think this is the predictable sourness of old men whose time has passed, I also read an excellent column in which Howard Jacobson, in the course of making the fair point that grumpy old men are right at least as often as any other segment of the population, posed the following question:
Why is dissatisfaction taken to be a mark of failing powers and patience, when it might just as easily be understood as a proper judgment on a foolish world?


  1. On Radio 4's Six O'Clock News earlier this week great play was made of the fact that new planets, possibly able to support life, are out there; the report, which followed the Wimbledon daily summary, explained that a telescope with mirrors 'larger than several tennis courts' would be needed to see them. So now the listener has no concept of feet and inches or even metric equivalents unless its represented by something they've just heard about and should be able to grasp.

  2. Spot on. Watching any documentary now is a reminder that we're all supposed to have ADD and can't concentrate for longer than fifteen minutes. "This is what I'm going to tell you. This is what I've just told you and am about to tell you. This is what I've told you now four times." It makes the programmes both frustrating and boring.

  3. Terrific post David. Loved it.

  4. I watched some of [Michael Palin's] "Brazil" while our son was living there, hoping to get some picture of what normal life looked like and felt like

    Mm, I was a bit disappointed by this too. I'm pretty sure Brazil is not actually a nightmarish Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which Robert de Niro is a sort of terrorist plumber. Palin is very convincing as a torturer, though.

  5. TV isn't made for those who watch. It's made for those who might consider watching as they channel surf during ad breaks.

  6. Paul Simon summed it up:

    A man walks down the street
    He says why am I short of attention
    Got a short little span of attention...

  7. Yep, wholly concur. I was gobsmacked/appalled by the inane presentation, on BBC's Horizon last week. A supposedly eminent geologist presenting vacuous drivel that didn't present any worthwhile facts or sufficiently explore either side of the case for hydraulic fracturing as a method for extracting natural gas.