TV UK, 28 December

And it's good night from him: Dolan Cummings' last TV column.

Dolan Cummings

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spiked has been going for almost exactly five years now, during which time I’ve written around 250 TV UK columns, examining Britain’s life and culture through the prism of its television. I daresay these five years have not been the most revolutionary or exciting in Britain’s history, but there has always been plenty to write about.

This is the last TV column I’ll write, though I’ll still be contributing to spiked on TV, politics and life in general. Rather than doing one of those irritating retrospectives comprising clips from old episodes punctuated by a pathetically contrived plot involving characters stuck in a lift or whatever, I thought I’d take an overview of the past five years of TV.

That period has seen the mainstreaming of digital TV, though it’s been not so much a revolution as a barely perceptible evolution, and even now if digital TV disappeared tomorrow I don’t suppose many people would notice. Instead of ushering in a deluge of new and exciting channels, the ‘digital revolution’ has allowed existing broadcasters, notably the BBC and Channel 4, to compartmentalise their programming, putting much of the better stuff on digital-only channels like BBC4 and More4.

The subscription service On Digital became ITV Digital and promptly shuffled off into obscurity, while Sky has gone digital without ever making itself indispensable. People have it for sport or films, but Sky One has achieved little since the days when it had Buffy the Vampire Slayer ahead of anyone else. As a result, there is little incentive for people to move from the free-to-view channels on offer with a digi-box to the fully paid-up service.

Content is the thing, of course. And broadcasters are hardly overflowing with ideas that push the boundaries of the existing broadcasting infrastructure and technology. My tenure as TV columnist saw the demise of Channel 4’s Brookside, but also the inexplicable persistence of EastEnders and Coronation Street, as well as various less venerable soaps. Television remains plagued by the view, held within the industry as well as without, that it is ‘only telly’, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit rubbish.

‘Experimentation’ has tended to be restricted to so-called ‘reality TV’, which is founded on the same premise, with the proviso that broadcasters ought to make innovative rubbish, so that the assumedly veged-out masses can enjoy novelty with their ennui. Those who predict the passing of reality TV, however, have missed how in tune it is with more general cultural trends. The retreat from seriousness and the concomitant turning in on the self are not the invention of dastardly TV executives, but reflect broader social trends documented on spiked over the past five years.

The iconic TV moment of that period, of course, came not from Big Brother or Sex and the City or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but from real life, such as it is. The destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 has cast a shadow over current affairs coverage ever since, with the so-called War on Terror ever present in the background.

It was Italian prime minister and television magnate Silvio Berlusconi who first controversially put this in terms of defending Western civilisation when others were afraid to say it. Anyone who has ever seen Italian television will know just how unqualified he was to talk about Western civilisation.

Anyone wishing to understand the continuing reticence of other representatives of the Western elite, and the perplexing ambiguity of Western civilisation towards itself, could do worse than to watch American and perhaps especially UK TV. On that note, it’s happy New Year from me and, sooner or later, goodnight from them.

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