Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bad Movies and Trash TV

UK TV service Channel 4's founding chief executive has got involved in the debate about whether the broadcaster has strayed too far from its public service remit, accusing it of having an "obsession" with sex and bad behaviour.

In an article for 'Prospect' magazine, Sir Jeremy Isaacs cites programmes such as 'Designer Vaginas', 'The World's Biggest Penis' and the forthcoming 'Wank Week', as evidence of the channel's decline.

He lambasts the broadcaster for allowing Peaches Geldof to host a show about Islam and argues that 'Big Brother' has declined from an innovative social experiment to the embodiment of "a mildly prurient voyeurism." In its early days, Channel 4 offered "a quiet seriousness that today has mostly disappeared", writes Sir Jeremy.

"Today, commercial ambitions are taking Channel 4 down different paths."

Sir Jeremy's words are seen as an echo of the case put forward in the MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh three months ago, when, in a reference to public handouts to the broadcasters, the outgoing ITV chief executive Charles Allen described Channel 4 as "behaving like a 25-year-old still living at home. Dipping into mum's purse, even when it's got a fat pay cheque in its back pocket."

Complaints about Channel 4's proclivity for graphic sexual content date back to 1987 when, after replacing Sir Jeremy as chief executive, Michael Grade earned the soubriquet of "pornographer-in-chief."

Channel 4 is seeking the support of media regulator Ofcom and the UK Government for funding of an expected £100m (€148m) gap it claims will open up in its finances as the UK switches from analogue to digital TV by 2012, the fierce debate about its public service remit has intensified.

Channel 4's prime marketing concept is the appeal to a 16-to 34-year-old audience, says Sir Jeremy, who was chief executive from its launch in 1982 until 1987.

"This has some strange consequences - a series explaining Islam, for example, is entrusted to Peaches Geldof. There's an obsession with adolescent transgression and sex. Gordon Ramsay is hired to make a series called The F Word; Designer Vaginas is followed by The World's Biggest Penis. This autumn, we heard about 'Wank Week'."

Sir Jeremy believes Channel 4's commercial success "sits oddly" with its public service obligations - the channel receives free broadcasting spectrum in return for those obligations.

Both Hollywood movies and the standard of television are a hit-and-miss affair these times and it's mostly a miss with audiences just cheesed off with what's on offer.

Last week, FT film critic Nigel Andrews wrote that years ago the screenwriter William Goldman, whose career was once paved with gold (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men) but who learned like many in the movie biz that cracks appear quickly in paving, penned a proverb about filmmaking that became famous: "Nobody knows anything." It was simple, brisk, brilliant; it was almost impossible to disprove. Industry observers have reached for the proverb again and again. They reached for it more than ever this year. It may become a bumper sticker in LA by Christmas.

What can an entertainment industry do when nearly all the indicators in the latest summer contradict the indicators from the previous one? In 2005, sequels and prequels were peppy at the box office and helped prop up the business. This year they tanked (again excepting Pirates 2 and, to a smaller degree, X-Men 3).

Maybe they have found another hit in the latest flavour of the month Borat, but I think not.

David Ansen in Newsweek wrote that the Three Stooges and Molière. Joan Rivers, who's not exactly a spring chicken, thinks that Sacha Baron Cohen—the invisible man who plays Borat—is "exactly where comedy should be now. Comedy is there to break open the box that holds the untouchable and the unsayable. It's about making you face the things you don't want to face, and the easiest way to face it is through humor. I hate to get serious, but that's why I love this stuff with Borat. Break the next barrier down! That's the joy of comedy."

Baron Cohen's creation, Borat Sagdiyev, takes us to the comic edge. Borat, for the many who have never seen him on HBO's "Da Ali G Show," is a disarmingly enthusiastic, viciously anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, horny and unhousebroken fiction-al journalist from Kazakhstan. (It's a real country: just ask its government, which has mounted an outraged PR campaign to counteract Borat's slurs on its national honor.)

In the largely unscripted film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the faux TV journalist travels to America, accompanied by his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), to make a documentary. As director Larry Charles's camera captures real-life encounters with unsuspecting Americans (making this an almost-documentary comedy about the making of a fake documentary), it soon becomes clear that the ultimate joke is not on Borat, but on us. With its cavalcade of drunken frat boys, well-mannered racists and a gun dealer who doesn't bat an eye when Borat asks him what would be the best gun for shooting a Jew (he recommends a 9mm or a Glock automatic), "Borat" paints a portrait of the American subconscious that would give you nightmares—if you weren't laughing so hard.

Cohen should have stuck to television rather than this faux Michael Moore effort that is funny in parts but maybe an Irishman should have misgivings at a reprise of the scenario where we were sneered at as having "pigs in the parlour" and now it's the turn of the Kazakahs.

I recall seeing a wartime Pathé newsreel, which had a shot of De Valera and the narrator said: Take a hard luck at this man... and then there were some shots of our then "backward" neutral country with one shot showing an old woman herding pigs.

Trash TV

What is striking about television, is how little originality exists.

Any programme maker that comes up with a popular format, is certain that within a short spell, there will be multiple clones.

So, the viewer ends up with a multiplicity of 'me too' property, holiday and cooking programmes.

BBC 2's Dragon's Den where successful business folk listen to pitches for venture capital from a spectrum of inventors and sundry, is compelling viewing and a lesson for wannabes trying to raise funding from bright people with a low boredom threshold.

There's already a clone with some variation and there are bound to be more. Think how many programmes were spawned by Big Brother.

How much the presence of a TV crew has on what is supposed to be real life situation, varies but it is always a factor?

One of the UK channels runs a series with the dubious title: One Year to Pay off Your Mortgage, on UK people who head off to foreign climes to make a killing from property.

One case involved two women who hoped to make £250,000 profit from the restoration of 3 run down properties in a Spanish village.

Such a programme has a familiar format - starting with high hopes, then the difficulties pile up and eventually the boat sails into the harbour.

The viewer is simply treated as a fool.

The producers don't waste time and money on dud projects and the presence of a TV crew helps to iron out some wrinkles big and small.

In this particular Spanish case, a refusal of a mortgage, led to a quest to the provincial capital that was successful. Curiously, the lender was never named nor was there footage of the lender's premises or the process.

And an alluring message from the programme makers for the intrepid and suckers alike: All together their five properties have been valued at a staggering £577,000. Their total outlay for the project was just £329,000, so if they sell them all tomorrow they will make an enormous profit of £248,000 in less than a year. That’s an incredible potential profit and would be enough to pay off their mortgages in the UK.

Incredible it may well be and as a template for people who believe that the Spanish are all plonkers, why not take a punt?

Channel 4 gives Ireland a 14th place in its 20 Best Places to Make Money. It says that surging demand has not abated and, whilst you’ll have to spend more to get your property in the first place (average prices are around £170,000), you could still more than treble your money in 10 years.

Tony Robinson did a programme following EasyJet customers through the airport process and it was easy to see that the airline's staff were very restrained to the provocation of some disgruntled customers who were taking advantage of the cameras.


Trash television can be popular.

Graham Keeley of the London Times writes of a transsexual who had a brief brush with fame as the lover of some D-list celebrities is quizzed about her glory days and her silicon-enhanced bust. At one point, her obviously distressed mother is wheeled on as a surprise guest to recount how they had not spoken for years.

Keeley writes: Welcome to a typical night on Spain’s telebasura, or “tele-rubbish”. The word sum ups a phenomenon whose popularity has become the stuff of television executives’ dreams and an advertising goldmine. In a country where the television or caja tonta (silly box) is on for an average of three hours a day in every home, there are 18 telebasura programmes on weekly, nine with shows every day.

They feature a diet of matadors’ ex-lovers recounting stories about their lurid love-lives, or minor celebrities telling how they fell from grace at the hands of drugs, alcohol or a deceitful lover. Typically, a panel of “journalists” will shout questions along with the audience until it is hard to know who is talking or what they are saying.

Keeley writes: On Crónicas Marcianas (Martian Chronicles), the most famous of these programmes, the show would usually finish with guests stripping off. Today, the most popular programme, Aqui hay tomate, is watched by at least five million people every day of the week — a 26 per cent audience share. It is closely followed by Salsa rosa, whose audience share on Saturday nights is 25 per cent, as three million fans tune in.

For the moguls of Spain’s private television channels who pioneered telebasura, the phenomenon’s success has encouraged them to expand the format with more programmes of a similar ilk.Anxious not to miss out on advertising revenues, the state-owned RTVE channel now has five programmes in this vein, which capture 5.5 million viewers each week. Of the big private channels, Antena 3 produces two programmes and Telecinco five. They can charge advertisers premium rates and advertising breaks can last up to five minutes to ensure that they make the most cash from each programme.

Rosa Villacastín, a journalist who specialises in this form of tabloid television, believes that the secret is simple. “People are sick of politics or the economy and they have had enough of their own problems,” she says.

“With these programmes, they are in charge of how much they watch and can turn off the television whenever they want.”

Rosario Lacalle, whose book The Television Viewer examines the phenomenon, believes that Spaniards love trash TV because it gives them a chance to taste lives very different from their own: “This is a very Spanish phenomenon, unknown in any other country, in which we see the testimony of those who aspire to be famous, who go from programme to programme,” she says.

The background to telebasura lies in the huge burst of competition that started when commercial television, independent of the State, finally hit the screens in Spain in 1989, with Antena 3.

After years of repression and censorship under the dictatorship of General Franco, and no doubt inspired by the popularity of American downmarket talk shows and Italy’s distinctive tabloid TV, the cut-throat competition between channels led producers to look for the obvious lure: sex. Soft porn shows like A Day is a Day — a chat show that ended with a striptease artist — were typical, but when this lost its thrill, audiences turned to other attractions.

The ratings war has been fought mainly by importing low-budget Latin American soap operas and mixing them with locally produced variety shows and sitcoms. Yet it is the talk shows that have proved the most successful.

Politicians have successively promised to improve the standard of television and wean Spaniards off telebasura, but the financial success of these programmes to the television channels has proved difficult to resist.

The channels have important allegiances to both the ruling Socialist Party and the main opposition right-wing Popular Party. José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister — who failed to honour promises to take action — said: “This is about people who you don’t know, or you don’t know where they come from, telling their misery, insulting each other in the worst way and showing every kind of intimacy.”