Communications Bill

The Communications Bill which is currently before Parliament aims to pave the way for a new communications regulator, Ofcom. In its final annual report this April the Independent Television Commission, one of those bodies being replaced by Ofcom, warned that television soap operas had reached saturation point during peak time. But this is just one element of the rapid deterioration in standards of taste and quality on British television and one senses that things need to change under the new regulator.

Today every channel features a confessional TV show, morning, afternoon and night. As you are aware a typical show involves the hurling of insults and abuse from one guest to another. What truly amazes me is the success of these programmes. No doubt they continue to be shown on television because many millions wish to watch dysfunctional people washing their dirty linen in public.

Make no mistake – at its very best television has time and again shown itself to be an unequalled force for broadening the mind, and opening the eyes of viewers to a wide world outside.

Typically, however, modern-day television broadcasts seem to highlight conflict and confrontation in preference to calm and considered analysis of the issues. Perversely this is the staple diet of TV during an era when the British people have never been better educated, travelled or tolerant. So why are we so happy to be entertained – and I use the word in the loosest term – by a diet of such low-grade and similar television fare?

The same regrettably applies to many of our soap operas, watched as they are by huge weekly TV audiences. Producers and script writers of such shows are under intense pressure to provide the audience with an almost relentless and non-stop diet of sensation, conflict and dysfunctional behaviour. I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of "copycat" conduct, but the sheer coarseness and anti-social behaviour depicted by many soap opera characters surely has a detrimental effect on what television’s viewers consequently regard as normal behaviour.

If, as the toothless independent television commission has highlighted, the saturation of soap operas at peak viewing times is threat to diversity in our terrestrial television watching then things have reached a poor situation indeed.

Television has been a dominant part of national life for almost 50 years and ironically in a society which is increasingly described as diverse and multicultural, TV has been a great help in homogenising the daily experience of all. Unfortunately it has also been an influence that all too often has pandered to the basest instincts and appealed to the lowest common denominator.

It is the young whose emotions have been subjected to the most worrying level of desensitisation in the coverage of current events which should truly shock and distress. Instead they are debased by being presented as a jumble of sound and action, all of which contributes to a coarsening of society as a whole. This concern is also being expressed by the more thoughtful and sensitive within the television industry, but equally the TV executives recognise that in an increasingly competitive media world this is what sells. The prognosis for the immediate future is more of the same and an even more hard-nosed race towards maintaining high ratings in an increasingly competitive industry. One can only hope that Ofcom will help to put back the diversity in terrestrial television otherwise the loser will be British society.