Belfast Telegraph

Stodgy TV diet is repeating on me

By Walter Ellis

Americans get to watch plenty of bad television. Quite enough, you would have thought, to require no help from the outside. The United States, has literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of stations.

Most of them are too awful to justify even a momentary pause when channel-surfing of an evening. Some are so egregious that should your finger slip on the remote and you catch a couple of seconds of whatever pap is currently on screen, you move on with a shudder, as if you had just accidentally shaken hands with Britney Spears.

At the bottom end (at depths so extreme you would need a bathysphere to survive the experience) they are abysmal beyond belief - so bad that you would need a truth and reconciliation commission just to apportion blame. You would, you would think, rather confess to being a drug runner or the military governor of Baghdad than to being responsible for any of these low-budget, no-budget televisual excretions.

And yet ¿ there is one channel that stands out beneath the rest for the sheer awfulness of its output: a station that each year carries off the coveted Cuillière du Bois at the Brooklyn Heights Academy Awards. I am referring, alas, to BBC America.

Unless you live in the US, you may not have heard of this malign outpost of British corporate culture. But it is, as its name suggests, the flag-carrier in the United States for the world's most prestigious programme-maker, the British Broadcasting Corporation. As we are constantly reminded, the BBC wins more awards than any other TV station in the world. It is the Rolls-Royce of television. Turn on the Beeb, they say, and all you can hear is the clock ticking away to midnight. No flipping; no need to touch the dial. Just stick with the BBC and you're farting through silk.

If the BBC was the Foreign Office, BBC America would be its principle embassy, bearing its message of excellence to the world's richest market. So what does it actually show? Here is the full schedule, for today, October 17, beginning at noon:

Cash in the Attic, Everything Must Go Everything Must Go, The Weakest Link, How Clean Is Your House, How Clean Is Your House, You Are What You Eat, You Are What You Eat, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, My Family, My Family, World News, Hotel Babylon, Hotel Babylon, World News, Hotel Babylon

But you get my drift. This is culture reduced to a persistent vegetative state. But you get my drift. On and on and on into a deep and dreamless state But you get my drift.

This isn't television. It's like a waxworks or a visit to the Museum of the Moving Image. At least they no longer show six in a row of Monty Python and Benny Hill (though don't hold your breath). Even the world news contrives to be dull, delivered by anonymous, perfectly coiffed presenters, their identities rooted somewhere in cyberspace, who look as if they've arrived in the studio straight from a strategy lunch with Max Headroom.

How can it be justified? The answer is that it can't. I haven't telephoned anybody at the BBC to ask what on earth is going on, because I can see for myself. What is going on (and on) is You Are What You Eat, interspersed with re-runs of oldies but goldies, such as Doctor Who, Top Gear and Absolutely Fabulous. Footballers' Wives, the oh-so-English, bottom-feeding version of Desperate Houswives, seems at least to have been phased out, along with The Office, but I fear we are going to be watching Gordon Ramsey's F-Word and Robin Hood from now to the end of time.

Episodes of popular shows are repeated and repeated, and then repeated again, as if viewers were like goldfish or suffered from Alzheimer's. It was when I realised I had become word-perfect on every episode of Doctor Who that I decided I needed to get out more - or as they say on Hotel Babylon, get a room.

I repeat (and why not?), I have not talked to the BBC about any of this. No doubt they would come up with all sorts of justifications for what is by any standards a parody of programme scheduling. Just for the record, the service - available across the nation via digital cable and satellite - was launched in March 1998 and is wholly owned by BBC Worldwide, which last year made a profit of £111m. Maybe the explanation is that they are ploughing all their money into sports broadcasts, none of which are ever available on BBC America. Or maybe they think American viewers are contemptible and won't notice - or aren't watching anyway. Or it could just be that they're stupid.

Whatever the explanation, it is nothing less than a national disgrace. A cultural humiliation. Even the ads (yes, ads on the BBC!) are low-grade. Pet medicines by mail-order, orthopaedic beds, walk-in baths and plug-in deodorisers are the staple fare, indicating an audience of self-obsessed pensioners. Me? I get old just looking at the schedule.

Belfast Telegraph


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