Sunday, May 14

A schedule with disaster

David Davies looks at the near criminal under-appreciation certain shows suffer at the hands of the enemy of the telly devotee, the schedulers

I asked for a Seinfeld boxset for Christmas. It's definitely one of the greatest sit-coms ever made. I would have asked for the same present, probably on VHS, if I'd caught Seinfeld on terrestrial TV instead of coming across it on the Paramount Comedy Channel. Maybe I missed it because I'm lazy, but I think the main reason was that the Beeb, in all its wisdom, consigned one of the great American imports to an after eleven slot, which is a bit like Jack Nicholson turning up at your local cinema and being told to get in the line.Then there are all the other great American shows that have languished, and are currently languishing, in late-night BBC2 slots. Off the top of my head I came up with Arrested Development, The Mighty Boosh and American Dad. These are great shows. Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn't even get a place on the Channel 4 schedule, relegated instead to E4 and, recently, More4. It gets primetime billing on that channel along with The Daily Show, another priceless overseas show marooned on the Hardest Channel To Find In The World (all I know is it's somewhere between FX and UKTV People, though I could be wrong about that).The thing is, these shows aren't an acquired taste. We know people love comedy of embarrassment because The Office was huge - so what's wrong with Larry David's masterpiece? Brits are renowned for satire - Have I Got News For You now has a coveted Friday night segment - so why are we letting the superbly funny Daily Show pass us by? Jon Stewart hosted the Oscars, it's not exactly cult TV we're talking about. Yes, you could make a case for the Mighty Boosh keeping late night company because, I don't know, it's a bit weird. So are Reeves and Mortimer though, and a few years ago Shooting Stars brought them, and Matt Lucas, to the attention of the British public. As Neo said in the second Matrix film (congratulations to those of you who made it to the end) 'the problem is choice'. As the number of channels increase, the proportions of viewers decrease. The days of reeling in over 20 million for Auntie or ITV are long gone - Doctor Who is considered a hit with just over 8 million tuning in on a regular basis. Couple this with DVD recorders taking over where VHS left off, the ease of hard drive recorders, and even the beginnings of iTunes as TV provider in America, and it's easy to see why channels are more reluctant to take risks with their scheduling. The BFI lays it down thus: 'Scheduling programmes is a fine art, a process of careful selection and combination. Audiences are given a menu of programmes that often have a relationship between them - hence a current affairs programme is usually scheduled after a news broadcast. Broadcasters aim to hook their audiences by enticing them to stay with their channel. In order to do that the scheduler makes assumptions on the nature of the television audience and what they are likely to watch. Some channels, for instance will have a comedy slot where two or maybe even three shows are played in a row to encourage the viewer to stick with the channel.' It's easy to see why broadcasters are so reticent when it comes to testing out unknowns on the fickle viewer. Introducing newness into the mainstream schedule attaches variables to shows around it. For instance, with a Friday night line-up of Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and The Office, the chances are most people would skip the Boosh in favour of what they know, and may not return to watch The Office if hooked by another channel. It's ironic that two shows now considered mainstream were at one point in the position the Boosh now finds itself, yet to place it between those two hits would still get the majority of viewers to turn over. It seems that it's up to students and TV critics to decide which minority shows get promoted to the big league, and in the grand scheme of things that's a small demographic. You can't really blame broadcasters though. Channel 4's FAQ section highlights the problems of a multi-channel audience, justifying their announcers talking over end credits by saying, 'It is an unfortunate reality that television audiences fall dramatically when credits start to roll and in the increasingly competitive multi-channel environment, all channels are under pressure to retain viewers. We have to use every opportunity at our disposal to let our viewers know what is on offer in subsequent schedules. An announcement over the end credits of a programme is an effective means of keeping our viewers informed and reduces the likelihood of their switching over. When we do schedule announcements during credits, we try to ensure that they are appropriate to the programme and remain sensitive to the context of the programme or film’s ending.' Well at least they're being honest. But it's not like the mainstream channels avoid taking risks anymore. The Beeb have flogged Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps to death, and they still don't understand it's as funny as using your bum for a bike saddle. Channel 4 launched the Friday Night Project, only to realise that most people interested in watching the Friday Night Project are actually out on a Friday night. Someone, somewhere, is making the wrong choices. Occasionally someone gets it right, and when they do we get The Office, or Have I Got News For You, or The Fast Show. These are great shows given a chance, and they paid off commercially as well as critically. HBO is churning out brilliant show after brilliant show, bringing us instant classics like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. What do we do with them? We stick them on late at night on the fourth most watched channel. Over this side of the pond we have Sky One putting programmes like 24 in their primetime schedules, and it works as a primetime show, but the Beeb decides to dump it after two seasons on BBC2. It's frustrating to see so many would-be classics showing on secondary channels, especially now national institutions are closing down the ways in which shows can gain a buzz (the BBC's Cult website died last year, despite having over half a million visitors). It's even more annoying when a format like Deal Or No Deal is kept in a 4pm slot so Channel 4 won't lose the student audience to Neighbours. Put it on primetime weeknights, it'll be the next Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Take a chance, you've got Noel Edmonds on board! And let's face it, if Noel Edmonds can't get a primetime slot for his show, what hope is there for the Mighty Boosh?

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