The cultural establishment claims that demanding television programmes draw smaller but more committed audiences. New research suggests that this is wishful thinking. Harold Lind sees no escape from cultural elitismby Harold Lind / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I knew Dennis Potter slightly at university and was never in the slightest doubt that he was a person of extraordinary talent, so great that it could reasonably be described as genius. Thus far, I align myself with our cultural establishment. But we part company in our view of the nature of that genius. The establishment view is that it was manifested in Potter’s social and political thinking, even more in his writing. When I knew him, I regarded Potter’s thinking as typical of the confused soft left, and his writing as producing adequate but not exceptional journalism. His real talents lay in two quite different areas. He always had great charisma, and this was allied to a unique ability to generate self publicity. He worked hard on the former, but the latter appeared to come naturally. He seemed able to pinpoint exactly how to arouse the most widespread controversy about his activities, thus ensuring a recognition far greater than their intrinsic quality deserved.
His battles with Mary Whitehouse about the alleged prurient content of his television plays brought him great publicity-even an audience of hopefuls, waiting, usually in vain, for the sexy bits. His attacks on Rupert Murdoch and John Birt were timed to achieve mass coverage in a mainly sympathetic press. The culmination of this publicity fest came in his final interview with Melvyn Bragg. The most pathetic part was watching poor Melvyn being led around like a bear with a ring in his nose. But by achieving the objective of his final fling-to ensure that his last plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, were transmitted without any editing on two separate television channels-Potter may have over-reached himself. The growing self-indulgence which tarnished all his work through the 1970s and 1980s, as he strove to retain the Mary Whitehouse imprimatur for filth, finally reached a level which even the average television critic found hard to ignore. These plays also suffered from the drawback of not having Potter around to defend them. He could always talk a superb play. It was a pity that he could not write one.
My views of Potter’s writing ability are purely subjective. That is the nature of criticism. I suspect that without the assistance of Potter’s charisma, his work will, before long, disappear without trace, until resurrected some time in the late 21st century by a student of media history (which is what English literature will be called by then), as an example of the peculiar cultural tastes of the early television age. Since I have no aspirations to be a drama critic, it would not worry me greatly if I were proved wrong, and Potter became accepted as a classic 20th century playwright. De gustibus non est disputandum.
But there is a far more serious issue connected with Potter’s writing-which goes to the heart of a debate about the nature of our culture. By a happy chance, Potter is both a protagonist in the argument and the provider of damning evidence against the side he supported.
If there was one strand which ran consistently through Potter’s thinking, it was the need to provide serious culture for the working class. This idea was propagated enthusiastically in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but what exactly does it mean?
Television achieved mass popularity only after the launch of ITV in the mid-1950s. Before then, under the auspices of the Reithian BBC, both programmes and viewers had been overwhelmingly middle class. Ordinary people flocked to watch the much less demanding programmes shown on ITV. This trend worried those who believed in a working class culture different (although not very) from the BBC model, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the down-market ITV programmes.
The leading writers in this area were Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy) and Raymond Williams (Culture and Society). Their argument was that the working class was being seduced-probably deliberately-by ITV programmes which were aimed at the lowest common denominator, providing material which people did not like very much, and which were watched as a line of least resistance. These could be contrasted with the cultural programmes (of which the plays of Dennis Potter subsequently became shining examples) which ordinary people would greatly appreciate if they could be induced to watch.
This thinking started on the left, and became a central strand of new left philosophy. Before long, it was also adopted by pillars of the broadcasting establishment within the BBC and what was then the ITA. By the end of the 1960s, the cultural elitism associated with Lord Reith was out of fashion; the common man was in. But this required both the BBC governors and the ITA to find another justification for insisting on broadcasting unpopular and usually expensive cultural programmes-a course of action to which they were (and still are) committed.
Because the leftist cultural critics had produced their theories of the lowest common denominator to escape from cultural elitism, it should not be surprising that this line of argument found a resonance among people on different parts of the political spectrum who faced the same problem.
To produce backing for their case, the broadcasting authorities went to great lengths to make the distinction between viewing figures and audience appreciation-large numbers might watch soap operas or sitcoms, but the smaller numbers who watched the “better” programmes got more out of them. This was the philosophy behind Channel Four’s role as a minority channel, and justified the long string of Dennis Potter’s television plays. Only 2m people may watch a Potter play compared to 20m for Coronation Street, but the 2m are culturally elevated in a way quite different from the passive acceptance of the popular shows.
This view was held as an act of faith by the cultural establishment, both left and right. But it was fondly believed that the audience appreciation surveys run by the BBC and IBA provided supporting evidence. When asked directly what programmes they appreciated, viewers showed a suitable deference to the cultured end of the spectrum. But the question which everyone took care not to ask was whether this showed anything more than a readiness to give the “right” answers.
In my youth, the pretensions of welfare economics came under severe attack from what was called the “revealed preference” school. Their slogan was that you discover nothing by asking people what they want, but only by observing what they do when they have a choice. Measuring revealed preference produces practical problems in television. How can you tell if respondents are lying about their preferences when there is no objective criterion against which to judge?
In fact, there is such a criterion-in the trade it is called the “retention factor,” and it measures how much of a programme is watched by the viewer. Thanks to new computer software, the “retention factor” can now be measured more cheaply. TN AGB, the research company which conducts the basic television audience measurement, was kind enough to show me some figures. The good news is that the figures appear highly coherent-the retention factor is not random. The bad news for the cultural establishment is that the retention factor is highest in the most popular programmes and lowest in those which are supposed to generate a greater intensity of appreciation.
As a test case, TN AGB looked at the retention factor of a number of programmes, all roughly the same length, mainly shown on Sunday evenings over a three week period. In honour of Dennis Potter, I naturally chose Karaoke as the high culture programme, and added the South Bank Show as a makeweight. The main comparison was with Surprise Surprise, a show lacking any continuous plot line-widely regarded as flyweight rather than lightweight. Surprise Surprise had more viewers than the two cultural programmes, although the difference in some cases was rather less than I expected (an average of 12 per cent of the audience watched Surprise Surprise compared to 7 per cent for the cultural programmes). But the difference was really noticeable in the retention factor. Around 50 per cent of those who watched Surprise Surprise saw 40 minutes or more of the hour-long programme. This compared to less than 20 per cent watching 40 minutes of the 50 minute Karaoke. The South Bank Show was rather more variable. Over one third watched 40 or more minutes of a programme about Marlene Dietrich, but a programme with Albert Finney discussing his role in Karaoke was back under 20 per cent-presumably a further example of the Potter’s weal.
These examples are indications of a significant trend. There is a strong correlation between audience size for a programme and the intensity with which people watch it-contrary to the world according to Hoggart, Williams and Potter.
These findings have important implications. For instance, there has been much debate among advertisers as to the advantages of placing a commercial in a more or less highly appreciated programme. Until now, the criterion for appreciation has tended to be that peddled by the cultural establishment, but advertising agencies would do well to study retention factors with some care.
Cultural regulators face an even more difficult problem. The argument that they are offering people what, deep down, they really like, now seems lost. I can see no alternative to a return to Reithian elitism: the number of people watching a “good” programme all the way through may be tiny, but they are the right people with the right cultural ideas and should have large quantities of resources lavished on them. One may or may not agree with that argument, but left wing it ain’t-not even the Tony Blair variety.
Retention figures should receive more publicity. Programmes with the top ten retention figures in different genres would make interesting reading-and be quite easy to produce. If published, they would certainly make far more sense than the present appreciation index, which in any case is kept as a closely guarded secret by broadcasters.
But our cultural establishment is unlikely to let a few facts get in the way of an ideology. They will continue to regard Dennis Potter as a popular playwright who spoke to millions. This is a pity, because I have always felt Potter’s real function is to act as a case study for the Institute of Public Relations on how to achieve mass media coverage for a limited artistic talent.