When Folks on the Hill, Give My Head Peace and Kelly are spoken of as representing a golden age, you realise that broadcasting in Northern Ireland is in trouble.
The news that investment in home-produced programmes has slumped by more than 40% in five years and that the number of hours of home programming has fallen by more than 15% in just two years does not bode well for the future.
Of course, it is claimed the downfall is due to the recession but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that both BBC NI and and Ulster Television have been letting down their audiences — recession or no.
While both produce genuinely popular local programmes such as BBC NI’s Off The Beaten Track and UTV’s Lesser Spotted Ulster, most of what emanates from Broadcasting and Havelock houses is second rate, even if you can find it.
Problem is, we go through most of our viewing day here — and it is a 24/7 industry after all — without being bothered by at all home-produced programmes.
It’s in the wee small hours that home broadcasting comes in to its own in the Wee Six. UTV’s Brainbox (possibly the worst, most cynical local programme ever made) is an appallingly fascinating thing, which has hooked several of my friends with its pub quiz questions, pub stool glamour and brushwood-rolling silent airtime. It’s pure TV — it has no agenda other than to keep callers phoning in, rack up the tariffs, pass the time. But part of its allure is the fact it’s “local” — a novelty show in more ways than one.
Compare it (and its minimal budget) with the stretch limo that was BBC NI’s Northern Exposure, which brought us Gary Lineker and his ex-lingerie model wife Danielle Bux travelling round Northern Ireland and telling us what they made of us all. It was cringeworthy TV — Mr & Mrs Bux were doing their best to be nice to the long-suffering people of Ulster, a place they probably wouldn’t visit by choice in a million years; the programme makers were doing their best to be nice to Mr & Mrs Bux. Everyone was embarrassed by us. Including us.
Still, at least it wasn't ‘photocopy' television where we have our own wee version of (usually) over-exposed and already tired formats.
Take one example, BBC NI’s The Last Resort — a mish-mash of various reality formats. It may be good in terms of rubbernecking entertainment but the fact it's in Ulstervision doesn't add much to the experience. Ditto Good Dog, Bad Dog. Dog Borstal without the gloss.
The sad truth is that much of this type of programming conjures up the bleakness of shopping at a discount supermarket. Whatever Krazy Krispy Kornflakes may look like, THEY'RE NOT CORNFLAKES!
Why watch a poor BBC NI version of a BBC national format airing at probably the same time?
It may be small beer and not very sophisticated but think back over the years. Jimmy Young on a Saturday pushing Parkinson back an hour or two, Tony McAuley's legendary As I Roved Out (for the Taigs) and Make Mine Country (for the Prods).
What said more about living in Northern Ireland — Sam McAughtry recalling times past in Tiger's Bay or Colin Murphy impersonating Jasper Carrot?
And what happened to good ideas like Comic Roots (local comedians walking round the old area) or the under-rated Home Truths?
Local programmes shouldn't just be ‘programmes produced locally’. They should say something about our lives, our imaginations.
As it is, take out the news on both stations, and you’ve barely enough TV programming to fill one DVD per day.
Might there be something to cater for the afternoon market in NI?
All those children and mums at home in Coagh and Doagh and Clough and the other places national BBC can’t even pronounce never mind reach.
No wonder the most successful local show at the moment is Lesser Spotted Ulster — a programme at once out of date and timeless.
More of the same, please.