The drivel and gush of the television serial
Soap operas: nobody likes them, so why are they top of the viewing charts, asks Milton Shulman
Syndicated to UK newspapers on 19 March 1966
THE TELEVISION SERIAL – the nearest thing man has yet devised to talking opium is proliferating like an ugly weed across all channels.
Coronation Street. Crossroads. Weavers Green. The Newcomers. United. Emergency-Ward 10. Mrs. Thursday – together they add up to a massive indictment of the TV hierarchy whose collective intelligence can find nothing more imaginative with which to hook its millions of undiscriminating viewers.
It is bad enough that companies like ATV and Granada should confess to the sterility of their creative machine by clinging so desperately over the years to the formulas of Coronation Street and Emergency-Ward 10.
In no other country in the world is it possible to find audiences that have tolerated popular serials for so long or TV executives who have not felt ashamed that they have not been able to come up with something fresh and different after so years.
Even more worrying is the prospect that the pummelling the public have received by these long-running serials will lower their receptivity to any thing more demanding that plots and characters of an even lower standard will have to be devised in order to keep them happy.
There are signs that the present deplorable state of American TV is due to this fearful escalation in moronic taste. If a nation is brought up on a diet of pap it is not surprising that it never develops either the teeth or the stomach for something better or stronger.
Similarly, it seems, that in the serial field bad begets worse with Crossroads, Weavers Green, Mrs. Thursday and United! all aiming at targets lower than Coronation Street. The Newcomers is the only one with a slightly more ambitious standard.
It is clear that these increasing hours of drivel and gush can only have long-term deleterious effects on the creative abilities of all those writers, directors and actors who have to pump the stuff out.
But what is it doing to the nation? We are spending increasing millions on raising the educational standards of the young. And if education means anything it means, in addition to gaining knowledge, an opportunity to widen experience, to stretch imagination, to cultivate judgment, to sharpen sensitivity, to exercise observation and to stimulate energy.
But these programmes are tugging the young in exactly the opposite direction. They shrink experience, limit imagination, blunt judgment, dull sensitivity, discourage observation and stagnate energy.
These serials are naturally favourites of TV executives because, from their standpoint, they have certain built-in advantages. Scripts, sets and actors are relatively cheaper than other forms of TV drama. And because of their innocuousness and puerility these programmes are seldom subject to the complaints of pressure groups.
But none of these factors matter if would really these programmes did not justify themselves by appearing regularly in the top echelons of TAM ratings.
How accurate, then, are the TAM ratings? For it is their guidance and inspiration that undoubtedly decide whether or not we will get more and more of the drip serials.
TAM, of course, merely contends that it is recording the sets switched on to a particular programme and not whether anyone is actually watching it or enjoying it.
But in America recent Senate investigations have produced some disquieting facts about this method of assessing public taste and it has been a great national joke that one adventurous public relations man, merely by finding out the names of a few of the watching panellists was able to manipulate his programmes to the top of the charts.
Some five years ago an independent investigation showed that TAM was as reliable a method of assessing the volume of viewers as had yet been devised. Since then TAM has increased the size of its viewing panels so that it claim it is even more accurate.
Yet any reasonable man must wonder about some of the statistics that TAM has recently been issuing. For example, there is decided clash of opinion between it and the BBC about who was watching which channel on election night.
At midnight the BBC claims there were three times as many viewers watching the BBC as were switched on to ITV. TAM claims that viewers watching both channels – about 3,000,000 homes – were almost equal. This is a staggering discrepancy.
Again we have the remarkable fact that the five-a-week Crossroads, easily the worst produced of the present serials, had four of its programmes in the Top Ten in one week in Border, all five in the Top Ten in Ulster and three in the Top Ten in the South West.
Yet not a single programme of Crossroads in that same week was listed amongst the Top Twenty in the National TAM ratings. Nor did it reach the Top Ten in most of the other large regions with the exception of the Midlands where two programmes made it. Now it may be that people of Ulster, Cumberland and Plymouth have lower taste standards than the rest of Britain and just prefer Crossroads most days of the week to anything else TV has to offer.
It may be, too, just a coincidence that three regions have the lowest number of people a their TAM viewing panel – 100 sets as compared to the large regions with 400 set – but surely it is a coincidence that needs some investigating.
In America it is being suggested that TV audience measurements should be administered by a government agency. To avoid any such suggestion in this country, it is imperative that the public have absolute faith in the reliability of these figures.
Since the small screen is being flooded with more and more nonsense because it is claimed that it is what the public wants, but isn’t it about time we hear positively that is the public wants.
Five years is a long time in the changing world of public opinion measuring techniques. Isn’t time we had another independent investigation of both the BBC and TAM methods allegedly telling us what we want?
1 thought on “The drivel and gush of the television serial”
Did Milton Shulman ever like anything?
Although he seemed to spend his whole life criticising the efforts of others, I suppose he had cottoned on early to the idea that to make a living as a tv reviewer he had to be totally scathing in his critiques.
‘Not too bad’ or ‘Okay’ wouldn’t sell papers and get him a commission, so arguably he was the one dumbing down, by going straight for the cheap insults every time. I can remember ‘proper’ tv reviewers like Richard Last of The Daily Telegraph, who I’m sure would have considered Shulman to be the ‘Crossroads of tv reviewers’ (very much at the low end of the market).