The Triumph of the Internet

With audiences turning to the online world, television is caught in a deadly web

Nick Cohen

The editor of Standpoint proved himself a traditionalist by including a television column in his new magazine. In the old days, every editor wanted one. When television supplanted the press as the main source of news, papers developed a parasitic relationship with the medium. Tabloids exposed the plots of soap operas and the sex lives of their stars. All papers regarded TV listings and reviews as essential.

No longer. After 50 years, The Daily Telegraph has given up daily television reviews. When Peter Paterson, the Daily Mail‘s critic retired in 2006, his editor did not replace him. The Mail on Sunday has cancelled its reviews. Elsewhere, the post of TV critic, once a job for the best writers, no longer brings star billing.

“We’re glad you’re dying out,” a senior broadcaster told me, a little too pointedly, I thought. “Every time a paper loses a critic we rejoice. You never understood television.”

He blamed Clive James. For 10 years from 1972, James’s television columns for The Observer were “one of the most famous regular features in Fleet Street journalism,” as James himself modestly puts it on his website ( Opera critics must be able to read a score. Drama critics must appreciate the limits of the stage. But James had no interest in learning about scheduling and programme-making. He spent his week refining his one-liners – of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “he looks like a brown condom full of walnuts”; of Murray Walker, “in his quieter moments, it sounds like his trousers are on fire” – rather than understanding the basics of the television industry. Young journalists all over London imitated his style in vain attempts to be as clever and successful as him.

I was nearly convinced by my broadcaster friend. But I suspected that the decline of television coverage hurt him and his fellow broadcasters. In their hearts they must know that newspapers were shrugging their shoulders and walking away from a declining medium. Jean Seaton, an historian of the BBC, points out that on an ordinary day in the 1970s when nothing worth noting had happened, 10m people would nevertheless sit down to watch the evening news. In July, the final episode of Doctor Who, the most successful drama the BBC has produced in years, attracted just 9.8m viewers.

James did not need to acquire specialist knowledge of the mechanics of broadcasting 30 years ago. Television wasn’t a minority interest for a well-informed audience who expected a critic to be able to understand its technicalities as well as an opera critic could understand a score. It was the general interest of the nation; the centre of cultural life. James could joke about Murray Walker and know that most of his readers would get the gag. When there were only three channels, millions of people with only a passing interest watched Formula 1 for the prosaic reason that there wasn’t much else on.

The age of media scarcity is dead. For all their apparent differences, today’s typical audience for Formula 1 is like the traditional audience for opera: highly knowledgeable and relatively small. The passing trade the old BBC-ITV duopoly brought has long gone. You understand that when you grasp that it is impossible for any sports commentator ever again to enjoy the fame of Murray Walker.

The arrival of multi-channel television played its part, but the real reason broadcasters should worry is the internet. Print journalists have no right to snigger. Any of my fellow hacks who doubt we are in a dying business should read Clay Shirky’s brilliant and, from the point of view of reporters, terrifying Here Comes Everybody. Newspapers were products of a time when information was expensive to disseminate and a professional caste was needed to collect and publish it, he writes. The internet has reduced the costs of publishing to next to nothing. “Anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable. If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist.”

The coming collapse of newspapers has been widely anticipated. A few techno-
Utopians believe that they can maintain their income by moving to the web, but I doubt their confidence will survive a recession. The futures predicted by more level-headed commentators vary from the apocalyptic to merely horrendous.

There is at least a plausible argument that television will face a similar crisis for similar reasons. Like newspapers and magazines, commercial television is competing for revenue in a market the internet has transformed. The supply of spaces to advertise in now far exceeds demand. Tellingly, Home Box Office, the best television station in the world, survives on subscriptions rather than advertising revenue. The BBC has the licence fee, but a subsidy from the taxpayer is not necessarily a blessing. It cannot produce dramas as good as HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The Wire because it feels it must appeal to everyone in the country. The pressure to find the lowest common denominator stifles talent. In the 1970s, appealing to everybody presented few difficulties. With the exception of a few crusty reactionaries, all the British spent a fair proportion of their time with BBC television and radio. Now a large slice of its former audience can happily surf the internet for weeks or months without the pleasure of the BBC’s company.

Conservative readers who doubt that the public sector can innovate should examine the swiftness of the BBC’s response. It has led the industry in developing the iPlayer, by which you can either stream or download to your computer for free programmes you have missed. To the fury of newspapers which see it using taxpayers’ money to muscle in on their market, its website is the most popular in Britain, and is read all over the world. Mark Thompson, the director-general, is talking of putting its archive on the internet. Parents may soon be able to show their children the programmes they watched when they were young.

The BBC is determined not to let its audience leave without a fight. Yet leave much of it will. Man is a social animal and the internet vastly increases the possibility for people to turn off the television and instead exchange news, make friends, find lovers and swap videos online. “Most of what gets created on any given day is just the ordinary stuff of life – gossip, little updates, thinking out loud,” Shirky says. “But now it’s done in the same medium as professionally produced material.” Cheeringly, the internet encourages people to cooperate and give their time and information free of charge. But they do it on specialist subjects that interest them – Formula 1, maybe, or opera.

Television was the product of a mass age when audiences had little choice. Their new freedom seems desirable but I worry how much more difficult it is going to become for a politician or reformer to compel a fragmented public to address a pressing issue. For all his indignation, my friend ought to be nostalgic for the heyday of Clive James. Perhaps we all should be.

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