Where did we dumb from?

It's misleading to suppose
there's any basic difference between
education & entertainment.
This distinction merely relieves people
of the responsibility of
looking into the matter
Marshall McLuhan, 1957

In the introduction to his Screen Burn collection, Guardian television critic Charlie Brooker describes the period since 2000 as marking "the beginning of an era during which TV finally jettisoned any pretence at being an important, socially beneficial medium and simply concentrated on sticking its bum in our face and giggling."

This kind of accusation is nothing new. In fact, people have been saying exactly the same thing at the beginning of every decade since television first entered the home. The event, which famously prompted many people to buy television sets, was the Queen's Coronation in 1953: a woman putting on a hat. It's hard to see how any decline in standards could be possible from such a feeble start.

One of the faults of the human memory is that it is so highly selective. Most of the time, actually, this isn't a fault at all, it's really useful because it allows us to compress and stack loads of information once it stops being useful. But in this case, our selective memory results in a bias towards cultural winners – we remember the best and forget the worst. Pop fans always complain that "music today isn't as good as it used to be", and the "used to be" always – always – refers to the time they first got into music. We think back to all those amazing records we loved and filter out all the rubbish. Then we look at the rubbish of today and ignore the gems.

It is exactly this bias, which leads people like Brooker to subscribe to the idea of a "narrative of decline". Whether it's the proliferation of more and more television channels, reality TV, declining advertising revenue or multinational global communications conglomerates interested only in their profit margins – whatever or whoever is to blame, the result is the same: television is cruder, crueller, and less sophisticated than ever before. In short, TV is dumbing down.

The words "dumbing down" necessarily suggest the phenomenon is a process – that today's telly isn't as good as it used to be, and it's getting worse. But this then makes one wonder what was it about the television of the past that makes it so much better than today's efforts? Where did we dumb from?

In order to get a better idea of where exactly we did dumb from, I decided to look at a selection of TV schedules from the last few decades. I chose a date as my starting point quite arbitrarily – out of vanity the date I picked was my birthday, 2nd April 1981. Back then, while I was busy being born, viewers could watch Georgie Fame guest on Blue Peter, or the last in the series of Hi-De-Hi, followed by Ronnie Corbett in Sorry ("There is a chance for Ronnie Corbett to share a flat with two girls but mother won't think of it"), all on BBC1. BBC2 has quite an impressively high showing of documentaries that night – The Jews Of Leeds, In Search Of Ethelred The Unready, as well as an episode of the celebrated Man Alive series – a series now infamous for the moment where a reporter asked a Yorkshire coalminer "What do you drink at your dinner parties?" 2nd April's episode sounds good though: "Nature has endowed some women with busts that are too large and others with busts that are too small," explains The Times. "Tonight's film is about the operations that two women undergo to improve their appearance." And people criticise Channel 5!

Actually, that dig at Channel 5 is grossly unfair. Like its fellow terrestrial broadcasters, over the last couple of years Five has increased its spending on arts programming. "Quality programming delivers viewers. We've surprised a few folk in the last year, coming up on strictly commercial grounds with arts programming to give viewers an alternative" said United Business Media's Clive Hollick – who owns thirty five per cent of Five – in an interview in the Evening Standard. "We've shown that there are audiences interested in arts programmes at 7.30pm and, yes, you can still have a bit of porn late at night."

Without doubt, the most celebrated piece of arts programming is Sir Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation. The first episode of Civilisation was broadcast on Sunday 23rd February 1969. Of course, it's difficult to compare viewing figures of programme types across the decades. Back then, there were only three channels and broadcasting closed at midnight, so viewers were faced with a much more limited choice than they are today with twenty-four hour broadcasting and more than three hundred and seventy channels. Anyway, let's have a look at the figures for Civilisation. That first episode attracted an audience of 900,000. Less than a million. The highest rated show that year, with an audience of 27.3 million viewers was Miss World.

But back to 1981. One show which caught my eye was shown on BBC1 at 3pm. It had the fantastic title Clare Rayner's Casebook. Unfortunately, the show appears not to feature the plump agony aunt cast as some sort of maverick crime fighter who doesn't play by the rules – from the description it sounds like a fairly bog-standard daytime advice show. Another programme which sounds pretty good is Watch It! ("Another story about the inventor called Dr Snuggles"). Apart from the adventures of Dr Snuggles and Clare Rayner fighting injustice though, the rest of the line-up sounds a little ropey.

Unlike today, in 1981 all broadcasting would be tucked up in bed by half twelve, and there's a surprisingly heavy slew of American imports and repeats. It's quite surprising just how much time was given over to bought-in American compared to today's schedule. A Man Called Ironside, Kojak, Little House On The Prairie, Sapphire & Steel. ITV or BBC1 would never get away with filling prime-time slots with imports like that now. Indeed, Channel 4 actually markets its imports as a point of differentiation, bought in to give the channel a different identity and to make it stand out from the other channels and it's programmes like The West Wing, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show and The Sopranos which give More4 its sophisticated slick appeal.

The other noticeable fact is the lack of news – around 2hrs on BBC1 compared with more than 5hrs today. The temptation for a cynic here would be to suggest that whilst the overall amount of news coverage may well have increased, the quality of that coverage has declined. But is there any truth in this?

In From Callaghan to Kosovo, Steven Barnett and Emily Seymour of the University of Westminster and Ivor Gaber from Goldsmiths College studied the changing trends in television news since the seventies. The researchers examined the content of over seven hundred news reports broadcast over twenty-five years in what is the most comprehensive study of its kind.

"Taking an overarching view of what is available to British viewers today, there is a healthy balance of serious, light and international coverage" the academics found. "Many of the premises of the increased tabloidisation of television news – that an emphasis on the sensational, the shallow and the parochial is driving out the complex, serious and outward-looking – cannot be applied to British television news" stated the report. And though the study did find that over the past few decades coverage of political affairs has decreased sharply, this has been balanced by an increase in stories about social issues such as drugs, immigration and crime. In conclusion, the researchers found that in spite of "dire warnings about the damaging effect of channel proliferation and market competition… the UK has maintained a remarkably robust and broadly serious approach to television news."

Continuing our journey back in time, 2nd April 1976 finds us faced with a rather uninspiring Friday night line-up. Even the television previewer from The Times struggled to find anything to recommend. "There is little worth staying in for apart from the enchanting Wodehouse Playhouse… and It's Patently Obvious, a rather outlandish new panel game of discovering who invented what." LWT's only real highlight appears to be Russell Harty's chatshow, though I'm sure that would suffer in comparison with Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. BBC1 – in the slot recently occupied by Andrew Davies' acclaimed Bleak House adaptation – has a Lassie film, while on BBC2 "Mr Smith's Vegetable Garden shows us how to grow vegetables". Overall, I'm tempted to agree with The Times' previewer, there really is little worth staying in for – perhaps a night down the pub would be more enjoyable. But don't expect any entertainment when you get home, everything would have finished by then, so you might as well go straight to bed.

Looking through old TV schedules, what is striking is just how small they get. The common refrain "There's nothing on TV" would be literally true for most of the day back in 1971. Switch on BBC2 anytime between the end of Playschool (11.20am – but don't worry if you miss it, it's repeated on BBC1 at 4.25pm) and the start of Newsroom (7.30pm) and all you'll be greeted with is the testcard. Although, to be honest, that might be preferable to Dick Emery (8.30pm BBC1) or Please Sir (7.00pm LWT).

A single day's schedule in The Guardian's Guide takes five pages and covers only about 10% of all the channels available in the UK. In that space, you could fit two week's worth of 1966′s programming quite comfortably. But why would you want to? The Dick Van Dyke Show, Max Bygraves, Pinky and Perky etc etc etc. Not to say it's all bad, of course. On ATV, there's an episode of Patrick McGoohan's precursor to The Prisoner, Danger Man. While on BBC2, there's an episode of Late Night Line Up – a genuinely adventurous and innovative discussion programme in which the very television shows that had just been broadcast were up for debate.

1966′s schedule also features Armchair Theatre, ATV's acclaimed series of the kind of one-off television plays Sixties TV is famous for – the kind of programming which has all but left our screens. But why has it vanished? In The Truth About Sixties TV last year, Mark Lawson proposed that the theatricality of these televisual plays was a product of the available technology. The large, heavy cameras meant that filming was confined to the studio. As a result, it was "too difficult and expensive to shoot film drama on location." This meant that writers such as David Hare and Harold Pinter found it easy to move from the stage to the screen. "What looks like a creative decision was actually a technical one" Lawson explained. "As soon as they could make things that were more like films they went off and did them."

Some critics questioned Lawson's premise, pointing out that some the most important television drama of the (late) sixties such as Cathy Come Home was indeed shot on location (although such location productions were rare) and that technical considerations bear little influence on screenplay quality. Instead, they believe the decline of television drama is a product of reduced budgets and an obsession over ratings and a reluctance to take risks both inspired by increased competition from other channels. "Because audience channel hopping wasn't a major concern for executives, controllers weren't obsessed to the point of paranoia with ratings and allowed writers the all-important 'right to fail' without fear of losing their jobs" argues Victor Lewis Smith, describing multi-channel television as "the dilution of a once-powerful force for social cohesion" and claiming that today we have "more and more choice on television, but less and less worth watching."

But could it be that multi-channel television has had the opposite effect? Writing in The Observer about the amount of quality drama (two new dramas from Stephen Poliakoff, a new series from Jimmy McGovern, a brand new show from This Life creator Tony Garnett) lined up for this year, Benji Wilson suggests the reason for the recent improvement stems from this new competition. "The new channels may have delivered their fair share of dross, but by their very presence, they've had the propitious side-effect of forcing writers and commissioners to try that bit hared to create bold work that cuts through the clutter." Shows such as The West Wing, Deadwood and Carnivale highlight the inadequacy of Ross Kemp "gurning in Ultimate Force".

The television plays of the past were able to achieve huge audiences – Harold Pinter's first work for television achieved 20 million viewers in 1961 – because of how limited viewing choices were back then. Not only that, but a lot of the broadcasts were live and many went unrecorded meaning there would only ever be one chance to watch. I suppose at some stage, man may be able to travel far enough into space to catch up with the signal, but to be honest that sounds like a bit too much effort.

Going back a further five years restricts our viewing choices even further. Now we're reduced to just two channels – BBC2 only being launched in 1964, to a resounding power failure. Commercial television itself was only in its infancy but that didn't stop the Pilkington report criticising it for trivialising human experience. The Committee, which included sociologist Richard Hoggart, condemned commercial television for seeking to "give the public what it wants" as to attempt do so "has the appearance of an appeal to democratic principle but the appearance is deceptive. It is in fact patronising and arrogant, in that claims to know what the public is, but defines it as no more than the mass audience; and in that, it claims to know what it wants, but it limits its choice to the average of experience."

Instead of limiting the television experience to "what the public wants", the Pilkington Committee believed broadcasters should "respect the public's right to choose from the widest possible range of subject matter and so enlarge worthwhile experience". However, there are of course practical limits to this approach. "Because, in principle, the possible range of subject matter is inexhaustible, all of it can never be presented, nor can the public know what the range is. So the broadcaster must explore it and choose from it first. This might be called "giving a lead": but it is not the lead of the autocratic or arrogant. It is the proper exercise of responsibility by public authorities duly constituted as trustees for the public interest."

This, as the economist Ronald Coase points out, exposes the true motive of the Pilkington Committee. "The committee avoids the question of how it should decide which programmes to transmit and for the phrase 'what the public wants', they substitute another and better, 'what the public authority wants." Whilst praising the BBC's public service record – and recommending the extension of those services to a second channel – the Committee criticized ATV for being too populist and overly concerned with trivia. Despite the fact that the report was based on little objective research – the Committee instead relying on the predictions and prejudices of cultural theorists such as Hoggart – the recommendations of the Pilkington report led to the implementation of a regulatory framework which would stay in place for almost thirty years.

Of course, I am not suggesting the television of the past was uniformly awful, but the idea that the standard of television has declined over the years bears no connection to the reality of what was actually on our screens. The "golden age" of television consisted – in part – of an almost incomprehensibly limited choice of programming, clunky production and a strict devotion to the "man on a hill" style of educational programming. On the other hand, there were groundbreaking documentaries, classic, era-defining sitcoms and provocative, socially aware dramas. There was some good stuff, and some rubbish. Same as now really, except now you have more of everything. Although the rubbish of today is more visible than the rubbish of yesterday, because it surrounds us and doesn't give us the chance to selectively forget about it. Also, the BBC haven't had the chance to wipe the tapes yet.

"Nostalgia is a national addiction and it deepens into something worse when the subject is TV," wrote Geoffrey Phillips in the Evening Standard as he looked back over the twenty years he spent as the paper's television previewer. "It becomes a condition that warps perception of the present and saps the ability to enjoy it". Looking back through television schedules, he found repeats of The Dick Emery Show, Bernie Winters and The Krankies appearing on The Big Top Variety and Sapphire And Steel. Even Victor Lewis-Smith, who tirelessly (and tiresomely) refers to BBC1 as DDC1 (Dumbing Down Channel 1) has reluctantly admitted that ideas of a golden age of television are misplaced. "All there was were fewer channels, which meant larger audiences, and therefore a greater sense of communality, and what people remember with affection aren't the shows themselves, but the enjoyable post-mortem discussions about them at work or in school with friends on the following Monday."

If there hasn't been any real decline in the quality of television over the past few decades, then why do so many people insist there has been? Who are these people and what do they want? In 2002, Gavyn Davies, former Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, gave a speech describing critics of modern television as "southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged and well educated" who "consume a disproportionate amount of the BBC's services". These people, already super-served by the BBC were simply using criticism of dumbing down as "a respectable way of trying to hijack even more of the BBC's services for themselves". Immediately after this speech, a whole host of southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged and well-educated critics exploded in fury at Davies' accusations.

But is there any truth in what Gavyn Davies is saying? As part of their Charter review research, the BBC commissioned a study looking into people's perception of television. 61% of those questioned felt that television now is as good or better than it has ever been. Around a quarter of respondents said they believed television has "dumbed down". Those answering that television had declined in quality tended to be "male, Southern ABC1s" – the exact demographic described by Gavyn Davies. Another study by marketing consultants Savant Research found that dumbing down was "only really" identified by "retired BC1s" in London – again matching Davies' description.

One of the most interesting studies looking into criticism of contemporary television was a study by Stephen Coleman of Oxford University on behalf of the Hansard Society. The study, based on a series of polls by YouGov identified two groups of people – Political Junkies (PJs) who are very interested in politics, but who don't watch Big Brother, and Big Brother viewers (BBs) who regularly watch Big Brother and participate in the weekly eviction votes, but are not interested in politics. The two groups were defined clearly along age and gender lines. 68% of PJs were male and 64% are over 50 years old. 72% of BBs, on the other hand, were female, with 71% under 40 years of age. In other words, the profile of the PJs exactly matched Gavyn Davies' description of the dumbing down complainers.

Whilst the BBs on the whole found politics "hard to understand" (25%) and "boring" (15%), they recognised it was "important" (23%). They also respected the PJs interest, describing them as "sensible" (22%) and "thoughtful" (21%) although they were also described as "dull" (21%). PJs, meanwhile, were a lot harder on the BBs. 63% called them "voyeuristic" and 29% calling them "dull". Only a small minority thought the BBs were "interested in people" (3%) and "fun-loving" (1%). A large majority (83%) of PJs thought BBs should show more interest in politics and when asked if they should be encouraged to watch programmes like Big Brother, 75% of PJs said no. (One of the most interesting things about the most recent Celebrity Big Brother has been seeing the uncomfortable way the prematurely-middle aged PJs of the "blogosphere" have tried to cover George Galloway's time in the Big Brother house without having to get their hands dirty).

Coleman describes both politics and Big Brother as "representation games" – but notes that in Big Brother, the contestants "look like" the viewers whilst in politics, the representatives "look after" their voters. Big Brother involves a level of emotional involvement which many BBs find lacking in politics. As emotion is seen as an increasingly important factor in all areas of modern life, as those qualities traditionally associated with femininity replace "masculine" ideas of stoicism and rationality, PJs find themselves de-skilled and their position in society is suddenly under threat. Perhaps this explains the hostility PJs express toward BBs and modern culture in general.

"There simply is no clear evidence of any dumbing down except by the most crude and irrelevant criteria," writes The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting. "The accusation is the final gasp of an upper-class male elite and their co-optees. They took it on themselves to define the distinction between high and popular culture and then police its boundaries." The entirely obvious truth is that there never was a golden age of television; there has been no decline. Far from demanding less of us, today's television requires new levels of emotional and intellectual engagement – whether it's tracking the social networks and strategic game play in Big Brother or decoding the multilayered references and steals in an episode of The Simpsons. TV viewing now requires new skills.

The accusation of dumbing down comes from an inability – or refusal – to acknowledge the legitimacy of these skills. "The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be" wrote Marshall McLuhan. The truth of McLuhan's statement is illustrated by the arrogant way in which John Humphreys and Germaine Greer talk of reality television. Shows like Big Brother "turn human beings into freaks for us to gawp at" with their "mind-numbing, witless vulgarity" said former reality TV star John Humphreys, whilst ex-Celebrity Big Brother housemate Germaine Greer called reality TV "both a tautology and an oxymoron". TV had become reality for many people who no longer participated in real life and instead lived through the stars of reality shows. "It's also an oxymoron because what we see is not real". The situations and contestants are manipulated and controlled.

But comments like these show an ignorance of how audiences of reality shows watch and react to television. Annette Hill, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Westminster, has studied Big Brother audiences closely and believes Humphreys and Greer have "fallen into the old trap of adopting the hypodermic theory of the media which assumes that its influence is one-way". Hill found that "far from being passive receivers, viewers mediate and respond to these programmes with a high level of informed debate". Spin-off shows like Big Brother's Big Mouth neatly illustrate this point, not to mention the million internet message-boards devoted to reality shows. Viewers are not only interested in the behaviour of the contestants, notes Hill, "but of the ideas and practices of the producers". Issues of authenticity are common in discussions about reality shows and it certainly doesn't take Germaine Greer to point out the manipulation at play. We're not stupid – and neither is the TV we watch.

James Ward