A TV numbers game that can’t guarantee quality

by John Boland

SILE DE VALERA’S Broadcasting Bill, passed by her government colleagues yesterday, aims to address a number of broadcasting matters, but only one of them will truly interest the general public that is, you and me.  SILE DE VALERA’S Broadcasting Bill, passed by her government colleagues yesterday, aims to address a number of broadcasting matters, but only one of them will truly interest the general public that is, you and me.

Some people will be thrilled (or not) that she intends to abolish the 3 per cent levy on local radio services, but the thrilled will be those directly involved in these services and the not will be the rest of us, who (shame on us) couldn’t care less.

Similarly, the establishment of a £500,000 fund to assist the transmission costs of local radio may be just what someone involved somewhere in the transmission of local radio most urgently needed to hear, but most of the population would have happily survived while remaining ignorant of that knowledge.

And while it might be very heartening to learn that, all going well, Telefis na Gaeilge will one day become a separate entity “in its own right”, all has not being going well in audience terms for TnaG up to now, which means that not too many of us are watching it, which means that as a nation we couldn’t care less.

So all that really interests us non-specialists in Ms. de Valera’s Bill is her plan to provide us with an awful lot more reasons for watching television or perhaps for not watching television.

Penetrate the jargon in her statement (she’s as adept at gobbledegook as her predecessor) and you’re left with the promise of more television channels than one can cruise through without one’s remote-finger becoming numb.

But do we actually want these channels? Ms. de Valera may proudly declare that the Government is grasping “the opportunity to provide a vast range of telecommunications services”, but it’s quality, not size, that should be what matters, and there’s no guarantee that a “vast range” of services will provide that.

On the contrary, to watch television in countries where numerous television channels are available at the flick of a remote is to watch a culture in fragmentation, with no primary broadcasters able to exert the authority that people in Britain still seek (and mostly get) from the BBC.

The BBC maintains a philosophy of public service broadcasting (not that you’d think so when watching the likes of Danny Baker), and it fulfils its old Reithian aspirations pretty well. It’s a cliche to say that viewers expect what they call “standards” from the Beeb, but it’s a cliche that remains true.

RTE doesn’t have that air of authority, but it’s got a similar kind of identity we feel it’s “our” television service, just as British viewers feel that the BBC, rather than ITV or Channel 4, is theirs.

So what will happen when we’re watching thirty-three Government-assisted channels rather than three? What price RTE’s fragile identity then? And what will be watching on all these extra channels? Thirty times as many interesting programmes? Very unlikely you only have to flick through the channels available in France or Denmark or Italy or indeed to sample the pay channels available from Sky to realise instantly that more is from far better more is just more.

So do we need channels crammed with re-runs of third-rate shows that no-one bothered watching first time round? Do we need endless coverage of arcane sporting and leisure pursuits such as archery, trampolining and underwater basket-weaving?

Do we really want the choice of 50 kinds of Fame and Fortune lottery shows, with 50 Marty Whelans beaming at bewildered panellists while asking them in 50 different languages, not to exhibit any talent but merely to push a button guaranteeing them oodles of money?

Perhaps Ms. De Valera’s Bill will unlock a brave new television world for everyone. Perhaps we’ll find that there’s an astonishing tapestry of vicarious human life to be encountered that we never guessed at before.

She herself seems to think so. “Only constraints on the human imagination,” she declared in yesterday’s speech, “will limit the range and diversity of the services that can be developed.”

She appeared to be speaking of technological services here rather than real services to the viewer, though she touched on these when she spoke of ensuring in her legislation “that Ireland has a range and breadth of programming services that are of high quality and that are relevant to Irish audiences.”

Well, that’s what we all want, but we only get it now and again from the three Irish channels available to us at the moment. Nor do we get an astonishing increase in range and quality when we include the British channels already available to most of us.

So what will six times that number of channels give to us that is worth having? Any viewer who has ever sat in an American or ‘European hotel room despairingly trying to find something anything worth watching will know that there’s more to television than the spurious and disorientatingly fragmented “choice” technology makes available.

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