Why is the telly such a turn-off?

Nine o'clock is known to broadcasters as ''the watershed''. It is the magic hour when small people are presumed to be in their beds and their parents, having started the dishwasher and swept a tidal wave of coloured plastic into the toy cupboard and wedged the door shut, are sitting down, putting their feet up and reaching for the remote control.

It is perhaps the most important hour of the day for TV schedulers. And yet, what a wasteland it is. By ”adult” programming, those in charge of scheduling seem to mean guff
about idyllic English villages where you are never more than 12 minutes away from a corpse, gritty police dramas, docu-soaps, trashy pop quizzes and property shows.

This week for instance there is nothing that could be called a grown-up programme on any of the main terrestrial channels at 9pm except, possibly, Horizon on BBC2. But as the subject of that is the Jurassic chestnut of why the dinosaurs died out, which would probably interest most eight-year-olds, it hardly seems to merit its late slot. Earlier on in the evening, I am happy to watch Changing Rooms and Ground Force with my kids. We avoid soaps – after a friend had to explain the concept of rape to a child who had not yet grasped what sex was, thanks to a storyline in EastEnders.

We don’t watch the early evening news – we stopped that when my son had nightmares for weeks after seeing a Palestinian child killed live on screen by Israeli forces. Instead, we move straight from what we laughingly call ”the happy hour” of homework, tea and baths to bedtime stories.

But by nine o’clock, I am ready for something a little more stimulating than Katie Morag. Current affairs, news, politics, science or culture would be nice. Sadly, there is little of that to be had on the small screen.

It is of course fantastic for the BBC that they now have BBC Four – it has enabled them to strip out almost all of the arts programming that used to be on BBC 2 and replace it with documentaries about how to communicate with the dead and shows that explain history as a royal who-shagged-who.

Perhaps it’s just that I have never quite got over the decision four years ago to move the news from nine o’clock to 10. Sometimes I go in search of news by switching off the TV and trying the radio – but Radio Four’s excellent The World Tonight is still at 10pm while Radio Five Live has sport.

The only place news is to be found at 9pm is on the rolling news shows like BBC News 24 and Sky. On the rare occasions I get a chance to see them, I dislike their breathless ”be there as it happens” style. What I want is the big news package of the day with some analysis and comment, not to see repeated fragments of reality. Sometimes watching one
particular rolling news channel, I get the feeling that the production team have just shoved in a loop tape and gone down the pub. Or they point a camera at someone at a press conference and leave it on.

I am a sad case. I have to confess that before the big change, I was one of the people who often used to watch the BBC News at nine o’clock and then turn over and see what ITN were saying to it. Since parenthood hit me, however, I am quite often in bed with a New Yorker by the start of Newsnight.

But there is a chink in the clouds. After all, it was only One Night With Barry Manilow at 9pm on Saturday. And I have already missed the rare chance Channel Five offered at 9pm on Monday to experience the wit and wisdom of supermodel Kate Moss in The Truth About Kate Moss.

Should foreign terror suspects be held without trial? A TV station held a telephone poll yesterday and 68% said ”Yes”. It’s an astonishing figure, coming as the English law lords consider whether an appeal can go ahead on behalf of up to 14 foreign nationals being held without charge in Belmarsh Prison.

Obviously those who vote yes to this kind of question would change their tune pretty quickly if kin of theirs or they themselves were jailed for three years, locked up for 22 hours a day in cells measuring three metres by 1.8 metres without being told what they were supposed to have done. It is true the suspects are entitled to leave the UK if they can find a country that will admit them or a country where they will not be in grave
danger but that is not necessarily possible.

The widespread support for human-rights abuse here and in the US since 9/11 is scary. it reminds me of something JM Coetzee writes in his novel Elizabeth Costello – that the ”particular horror” of the death camps in Germany and Poland was that: ”The killers refused

to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else.

They said ‘It is they in those cattle cars rattling past”. They did not say ‘How would it be if it were I in that cattle car?”.

The Scottish Herald
October 6th 2004