Heard any good TV recently? If you have, chances are it was courtesy of those kind people at the BBC. Thoughtful, interesting music programming may be seen by some as a niche interest, but is it really so eclectic and unprofitable that the only broadcaster willing to create any is also a public service?
This week, Later… with Jools Holland began its 2493rd series on the BBC. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a simple format, where five or six artists in a studio play a number of their tracks interspersed with informal interviews and a sprinkling of archive footage. Great lengths are taken to promote a laid-back ambiance, with celebrities (i.e. probably whoever was hanging around Television Centre that evening) drinking non-branded lager and looking like they’re enjoying themselves.
I enjoy Later… with Jools Holland and watch it most weeks when it’s on, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not really very good. The show’s commitment to diversity is admirable, but the screen time is allocated on a fame and success basis. That sounds fair enough, and it’s probably the best business strategy, but it meant that this week, Paul Weller’s stodge-rock being phoned in took centre-stage, while Gogol Bordello’s thrilling spectacle was almost an afterthought.
However, the opportunity to see musicians live on TV is never a bad thing, and the artist choice is fantastic compared to Jools’ awkward presenting and interviewing acumen. In the most recent show, whilst interviewing Paul Rodgers, best-known for his work with Free and recently of Queen, Jools’ opening question was, “Are you still enjoying everything as much as always?” Not exactly Frost and Nixon – it’s hard to believe that Holland has been fronting music TV shows since 1982.
If you want to look outside the tired format of Later… for decent music programming, the answer – as usual – is BBC4. They make great use of the vast BBC collection of live performances and their recent …Britannia series was riveting, as they told the story of different musical genres (prog, blues and synth-pop) and their rise to prominence in the UK.
However, other than that, it’s slim pickings. You can point to the seemingly ever-growing number of music channels on satellite TV, but these are something different altogether. At best, they’re a jukebox and at worst, little more than an advert or misogynistic soft-pornography for teenagers.
So, why is this? Admittedly, only the BBC have the vast swathes of historic live footage, but no commercial broadcasters seem to be willing to take a punt the same way Channel 4 did with The Tube in the 1980s. As far as I can tell, the only music programs on these channels today always seem to have the word ‘Vodafone’ or ‘T-Mobile’ rather conspicuously in their title. True, this doesn’t lead to a lack of quality in theory, but it certainly seems that way in practice. Oh, and don’t even think of mentioning The X Factor as an example of music programming on a commercial TV station. Regardless of whether you love it or loathe it, it’s got about as much to do with music as a ham sandwich.
This is where the hastily cobbled theory comes together. Although many TV stations make documentaries, they are often mass-market (of the celebrity or shocking real-life, I-was-born-with-two-faces variety) or more highbrow, which in relation to the arts means sculpture, painting, classical music and film. Pop music falls between the cracks, as it’s a mass-market commodity (everyone likes music in some form) but keen interest in it and its history is relatively unusual (not that many people would want to watch a 90 minute documentary about the introduction of electronic music to the charts; more fool them). All this means that pop music documentaries and programming aren’t profitable – not weighty enough for the intellectuals yet too specialised for the average viewer.
Of course, there may be a plethora of other, more valid reasons, but it seems a crying shame either way. In the modern world, where you can download the entire back catalogue of any artist at the click of a button and people are able to discover music a generation before their birth with ease, there are stories to be told and film to be seen. Surely there is an appetite and an audience for these tales, as well as people hungry for live performance and interviews. Maybe one of the commercial broadcasters could take a gamble on producing a show such as Spectacle, where a handful of artists perform, then talk about their career and inspirations with Elvis Costello. Since Costello seems pretty busy in the States these days, maybe we can get someone else to front the UK version – Mark E Smith anyone?
Whilst writing this article, I discovered that Spectacle has actually been aired on terrestrial TV in the UK. The first series was shown on Channel 4, with each episode aired once and only once, at around midnight. This from the channel that brought us a special program just to give the UK its first full-length viewing of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video? This may be a losing battle…