Private Viewing: Is terrestrial television being trashed in front of our eyes?

Penny Dreadful starring Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm., is an innovative TV drama which unleashes a

Penny Dreadful starring Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm., is an innovative TV drama which unleashes a collection of Gothic horror characters on Victorian London. It also features such star names as Rory Kinnear, Billie Piper, Eva Green, Simon Russell Beale and Helen McCrory. This British production is not available on terrestrial television. - Credit: PA

Television is not what it was. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says that event TV has replaced a properly diverse schedule

The Affair. just one of the critically acclaimed new dramas, which is only available on satellite te

The Affair. just one of the critically acclaimed new dramas, which is only available on satellite television. Pictured: Maura Tierney as Helen Solloway, Dominic West as Noah Solloway, Ruth Wilson as Alison Bailey and Joshua Jackson as Cole Lockhart. - Credit: PA

Is terrestrial television in crisis? I ask this because it occurred to me that my three must-see TV events of the week – Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and The Affair are all on satellite television.

I had a flick through the Radio Times to see if there is anything I was missing and the answer was no. It’s not that long since the BBC was bombarding us with “Great British drama” trailers, but since the end of Poldark it all seems to have gone quiet. True we have the expensive looking Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell filling the Sunday night quality drama slot but that is one programme, an island in a week of mediocrity.

The weekday schedules are filled with soaps, panel shows, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and increasingly weak talent shows.

I can remember a time when drama series used to pop up throughout the week and used to embrace a wide range of themes from the dark espionage of Smiley’s People to Galton and Simpson Comedy Playhouse to Edge of Darkness to Abigail’s Party. ITV had its own touchstone series too – Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel In The Crown and quirky comedy-dramas like Rumpole of the Bailey, Minder and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

Channel Four, when it launched in the early 1980s, made a huge play of showcasing a series of one-off dramas and the BBC, of course, was the home of Play For Today. Both outlets provided audiences with a rich source of thought-provoking material and frequently provided young writers like Jack Rosenthal and first-time directors like Stephen Frears with important calling cards. You can’t see that happening any more.

Sadly, there not only seems to be a lack of diversity in our schedules, there also appears to be a lack of investment. Not just finance, there’s a lack of creative investment. People are afraid to take a risk. It seems that the job of channel controllers today is to simply commission copycat productions of shows that are all ready hits elsewhere. The gymnast show Tumble seemed to be a misconceived cross between Splash and Strictly Come Dancing. This weekend’s new show Prized Apart appears to be a bizarre mix of The Krypton Factor and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and is somewhat out of place on BBC 1.

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I don’t mind variety shows but that’s not all I want. I need a mix of programmes. I feel that, perhaps, funding cuts are forcing us onto satellite television.

The BBC is being diminished with each passing year. BBC boss Tony Hall is currently looking to save £50m at the government’s behest by scrapping BBC 3 as a television channel and moving it online. His argument is that more than 50% of young viewers currently view BBC 3 via mobile or tablet so it makes sense to save money that way rather than cutting the original drama budget further.

To my eyes this seems a sensible solution, even if it does mean that the excruciating Don’t Tell The Bride gets a new home on BBC 1. However, some of the nation’s leading actors, writers and producers – people like Jimmy Mulville, Poldark’s Aidan Turner and comedians including Russell Howard, Jack Whitehall and Steve Coogan – have signed a petition urging the BBC not to scrap the station because they say it will kill off young talent.

Mr Hall has explained that BBC 3 will continue to exist and will continue to commission new programmes. It’s only the method of transmission that will change.

But, you can’t escape the feeling that BBC 2, BBC 4 and even Channel 4 are becoming safer, more middle-of-the-road. There are fewer chances being taken. The BBC has started to use iPlayer as a means of transmitting so-called edgy dramas, documentaries or near-the-knuckle satires. In the past they would have been scheduled late-night BBC 2 or BBC 4 but they still would have had a mainstream airing. Today they are tucked away and regarded as little more than an open secret.

It’s not all gloom and doom because you occasionally get something like The Fall on BBC 2 but the problem is that although these series are quality productions they are created as event television and often placed like an oasis in a desert of dross. Once the run of the series is over, there’s not an equivalent production to fill the slot. Suddenly we get Celebrity Masterchef or The Met: Policing London – not the same thing at all.

It seems to me that we need to invest in the BBC – and terrestrial television in general – otherwise we may find that it’s been sold off, bit by bit, but it was so run down that we didn’t notice – or care – and that would be a tragedy.

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