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17 February 2011

Who needs books when we could be watching Cheryl Cole?

TV has spoken; the printed word has had its day.

By Mark Watson

You might think that it’s impossible, as the great British public is made up of such a range of personalities, to generalise about what the “man on the street” likes. But there are people out there who specialise in doing just that. They are researchers, demographics experts and think-tank members. They monitor your reactions in minute detail. They provide ammunition to your grandad, who claims that nobody “has a real job any more”. And they report back to the authorities about what you want. At the beginning of another year of television commissioning, I am hearing their findings in the novel ways in which executives are rejecting projects. Some are truly alarming.

Did you know that you’re not interested in books? At least, not if you own a TV. You can’t be into both. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in two meetings about television proposals on the subject of books. In both, the executives were sceptical about the appeal of literature. According to their research, they said, books are a forbidding subject. Not very fun. Not the sort of thing you’d want to know about when you could be looking at images of Cheryl Cole, reading magazine articles about Cheryl Cole or thinking about Cheryl Cole – which is what they reckon the public is keen on. (Cheryl Cole has written a book, we countered. The commissioner’s eyes lit up briefly.)

One of the TV gurus even described the idea of books as “a bit 20th-century”. I’d never felt so old. I don’t know about you, but I was quite keen on the 20th century. Computers, for example, are rather 20th-century. Besides, books have been around for a lot longer than a century – longer, as I was tempted to remark, than television – but there you go. TV has spoken; the printed word has had its day.

Those who “green light” TV shows, films and so on are notorious for their irrational decision-making. There is a story in the industry about a writer in the 1990s who was trying to get a psychological drama commissioned. Every avenue seemed to be blocked. When Jurassic Park came out, however, the writer got a call from an excited Hollywood mogul. “We’re gonna make your movie!” he said. “We’re gonna make it . . . with dinosaurs!”

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This is an extreme (and possibly apocryphal) example – but not as extreme as you might imagine. The imperative to be “zeitgeisty” and “ahead of the curve” boils down to an endless process of watching what others are doing and trying to do the same thing. The “what we’re looking for” briefs sent out by the major channels can be summarised thus: “We’re on the lookout for The Office meets Little Britain meets Friends, with elements of Doctor Who, just to really cover our bases. Oh, and make sure someone famous is in it.”

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Then, they receive a script that miraculously achieves all of those things – but it’s too late, because someone at head office saw Black Swan last night and they’ve rewritten the brief to say: “It would be great if it was about ballet, too.”

Can the commissioners be blamed for making wild generalisations about “the public”, though, when the public has such a short attention span? It used to be said that a new television programme had three series to prove itself. This has gone down to one. With the advent of web forums, a single episode can make or break a show.

Today, thanks to Twitter, everyone is not only a critic, but a hasty one. The virtual axe can be wielded less than five minutes in to a programme’s debut, as some hipster’s 140-character review – “This is shit, turning over” – receives 20,000 retweets. Before long, there’ll be a website that dismisses shows before they have even been thought up, sparing everyone the tiresome business of making them.

Keep on dancing

It’s because of all this that high-ranking TV officials with their jobs at stake look everywhere they can for easily digestible advice on what “we” are interested in. And it’s also why everyone in television is bound by a set of committee-devised rules that are impossible to find out unless you try to break one of them.

Books are to be avoided. A programme is not worth making unless viewers can interact with it on Facebook. If you have two presenters, one must be male and the other female, or the show will look “too blokey”. (Also, the girl must be pretty, though the man can be more geeky-looking.) No one under the age of 25 watches documentaries. Nearly all programmes must involve dancing. And, most importantly, if someone has made a successful programme that shows any of these rules to be nonsense, then forget the rule book and just copy what they did, using a slightly different name.