Multi-Channel Revolution

The multi-channel TV era is with us - but for how long will we still be able to catch our cult favourites, wonders Alex J Geairns ...

 

“Resistance is futile”, or so the phrase goes, as used by one unhinged megalomaniac or another. Some would say that such is the reaction of the converted to the resistance to the tidal wave of channels, and programming, that the era of cable and satellite is bringing to the UK.

The good news, you would think, to those who appreciate what is now being described as “archive television” is that there are so many more outlets now demanding content of whatever form they can get. Even the cheapest of new programme production can be beaten to the lowest price by deals being done by archive owners.

However, the market, it would seem, has ground rules which mean many gems from years gone by will continue to fade into obscurity. The first is the ratings evidence to suggest that any TV show in monochrome will simply not get watched. Granada Plus shelved the black and white episodes of “Hadleigh” from its screenings, after stats showed that the monochrome episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs” made viewers switch off in serious numbers (the fact that these episodes lacked colour due to a strike at the time of production, with earlier episodes having embraced the advancement, meant nothing to viewers, it would seem).

It’s insane to suggest that colour is really that important to an audience. Film classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” are still monumental, and those get shown whenever possible. Turner Classic Movies (“TCM”), a relatively new satellite channel, shows nothing but old movies, a huge proportion in black and white, and its audience figures are massive. So, while it’s perfectly acceptable to screen movies minus colour, TV series from this bygone age struggle to nurture an audience.

The exception to this would seem to be the comedy genre. Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son - established classics all, still find a home on terrestrial telly in monochrome.

So, is it the fact that the content of the dramatic programmes has become dated? Certainly, when you watch a show like Department S, you know that it was contemporary for its time, and therefore thirty years on we are watching a period piece. You wouldn’t expect mobile phones, desktop computers or internet research to be part of them. It was suggested that the brand new episodes of “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” from the BBC differed from the originals in that they were far more fast-paced.

I recently compared the pilot episodes again on an equal footing - that’s the benefit of Carlton’s spruced-up DVD releases of the 1960s series - and pacing didn’t come into it. The difference was that one show was set 30 years ago ... and that’s about it. Which set of actors gave the better performances is a matter of taste. That’s why it’s legitimate to call them entirely different series - they don’t share the same universe, and the characters are separated by three decades of contemporary evolution, even though their names might be the same.

The other consideration is the nature of the audience for such archive programming. Logic would dictate that those into exploring programming which is now considered off the mainstream would actually embrace technologies that allowed them to access a greater range of TV series from both the past and present. The market research carried out amongst delegates of the Cult TV Festival would suggest this is far from the case. There are as many enthusiastic fans of television who continue to resist the lure of Murdoch’s dishes as there are those who graze on the more traditional TV fodder. In fact, recent research by the big guns shows that those who have never bought into cable and satellite delivery of TV are now even more entrenched in their view that it is something to steer clear of.

For less than the cost of a chart DVD or video, anyone can access on a monthly basis the general entertainment channels present on Sky. No movies, no sport, I grant you, but TV fans wouldn’t necessarily need these high cost premium services anyhow. You can sample far more on the airwaves and find all the really sought-after cult series with a dish and/or a set-top box. So, maybe it’s the case that in general fans of cult shows actually only want specifically one or two shows each - which in fact have enough supporters to justify a commercial video or DVD release. Not for them the great exploration adventure which many of us have in terms of finding out about all the TV series which excite pockets of viewers, united by having found what they consider is a mis-understood and mainly missed gem. In which case, even television fandom in general is not in a position to support repeats of long-lost series from days gone by.

So, does that mean that endless channels will show exactly the same stuff, just starting at different times? Dozens of Sky Channels in their movie “Box Office” do exactly that, staggering start times so that every 15 minutes you can catch the start of the same film throughout the day.

Not exactly variety. Sky would say that they are just giving customers what they want. Which, in effect is more of the same. And if there’s not a sizable audience for a repeat of a show considered “old gold”, then maybe they’ve been proved correct.

The moral of the story? If nothing else at this Cult TV weekend, take time to watch an episode of a show you’ve never watched before. There’s plenty to choose from, and your enthusiasm might just make all the difference (if you like what you see .....).

For old TV never dies, it just fails to find an audience. And without an audience, so many of those archives will have their doors locked forever and programmes within forgotten.