Channel 4 has had some hits and misses this season as it tries to find replacements for the phenomenon that was Big Brother
November 17, 2010
Malcolm in Seven Days: more mutual support group than TV show

Question: since 1900 which of the following have there been fewest of—popes, Labour prime ministers or men on the moon? This was one of the challenges on the Channel 4 game show, The Million Pound Drop. The contestants start with £1m and have to place their diminishing pot of money on the correct answers to save it. If they are unsure, they can hedge it across different solutions. What’s your answer? I quickly calculated there had been six Labour PMs and had little idea about the popes but guessed ten or 12 (it was ten). As for men on the moon, I knew there had been more than one landing but not how many (12, it turns out). This is a show with clever questions which encourages us to get involved at home (disclaimer—it comes from a company I used to work for). And should we feel so inclined we can get more involved than that: has a play-along online game. At one point in a recent episode a caption told us that 127,000 people were doing so. That was about 6 per cent of the viewing audience of 2m—an extraordinary statistic. And it is very gratifying for Channel 4, which pitches its brand to the digital natives coveted by advertisers.

The network is rebuilding at the moment. Having just axed Big Brother, it is looking for replacements. This involves trying a number of new ideas, not all of which will work. Here I’m referring to Seven Days, an interactive documentary series which petered out in mid-November. It started with around 1m viewers and sunk to 400,000, suffering the indignity of being bumped from 10pm to 11pm in mid-run (by The Million Pound Drop, as it happens). Unlike TMPD, Seven Days concentrated so hard on establishing a parallel online experience that it forgot to make the show itself compelling enough. First and foremost, programmes have to work as old-fashioned linear telly for the vast majority who won’t be leaping to their laptops.

The idea of Seven Days was to make a topical weekly documentary about the lives of a smorgasbord of Notting Hill residents. Meanwhile, Channel 4 laid on a sort of social network, jauntily named ChatNav, through which viewers could comment on and advise the participants. It was promoted on air thus: “They want to know what you think about their lives… tell them what you think they should do next.” The site itself was not without its amusements: “Who cares if you shave your chest… loose da peircings… you look like a garden gnome… let the fresh air get to their bottoms… you did not really freeze your dead cat?” These are the issues that affect the nation, of course. It also allowed the people featured in the series to respond, in true Facebook style. It was all very post post-modern. But why did viewers desert the television show itself?

What we most crave from “reality” shows is authenticity—we want those taking part to reveal their true selves. The Apprentice and BB may start from an entirely artificial premise, but the participants gradually forget that and lose their self-consciousness. Those on Seven Days remained a good deal too self-conscious. This was exacerbated by the constant online commentary and their narcissistic responses. The series prided itself on being a record of the previous week and appeared intoxicated with this topicality, constantly overlaying gobbets of radio news, cutting away to newspaper racks and prodding the characters to indulge in directionless chatter about everything from Wayne Rooney’s off/on contract to the comprehensive spending review. Some of the music soundtrack was excellent but the use of The Four Seasons for a black-tie dinner and “The Ride of the Valkyries” for a skydive was straight out of the BBC1 Nationwide album of clichés, circa 1975. Authentic it wasn’t.

The other thing Seven Days lacked was captivating narratives. Cutting between more than a dozen Notting Hillbillies as they nattered over their skinny, wet lattes meant we never got properly immersed. Indeed their lives were so incident-lite that they resorted to intermingling. Estate agent Ben looked for a flat for Laura the singer. Laura’s ex-flatmate, the model Samantha, dated Ben. Musician Javan guest rapped on Laura’s music track. Property developer Malcolm gave Javan a job on his building site. It was less of a television series and more a mutual support group. Somewhere in here, the father dying of motor neurone disease and the gay hairdresser estranged from his east end family got lost, despite the potential of their stories.

A former programme director at C4 once mordantly described Big Brother as a tree beneath which nothing else would grow. Now they’ve felled the tree and some saplings are emerging, while others have failed to germinate. But let’s hope Channel 4 continues to take risks. That’s why it was invented.