Nothing on TV?
Nick Thomas Today I got a call from a friend, an ex-hack even older than I, complaining about the dumbing down of colour supplements. She was lamenting the fact that every re-design results in less text and more pictures, as though the editors have lost sight of the fact that people buy newspapers because they want to read something, rather than just get visual satisfaction from the tube.
She's right. The Times has just gone through a spring clean, in which the Saturday supplements have been purged of the detailed, authoritative criticism of art, theatre and music which used to grace the upfront pages of the listings mag, making it the best culture section on sale. And as always with these things, it isn't just the dumbing down for commercial reasons that makes you mad, it's the stupidity even in commercial terms. For The Times has had the problem of being too closely identified with London and the South East, which a page in a supplement devoted to provincial theatre partly redressed; while The Telegraph, whose traditional strength has been in the shires and provinces, has recently dumped the Peterborough gossip column and reflagged it as something called London Spy, using stories from outside the Great Wen only on
But back to the point: newspapers are chasing
readers in a way that puts the word in inverted commas. (I mean "readers", by the way, not "newspaper"; the tabloids disposed of both of those long since, but there is still serious news in our broadsheets.) Today I learnt that a Derby-based company called TNX is doing deals with our rail-travel providers to get television on to commuter trains, so that the poor slaves — you and me — who have to travel by train can't even escape from television during our journeys, when we might otherwise read a newspaper, or stare dreamily out of the window, reciting to ourselves the poetry we learnt at school.
And the horrible thing is that TNX, and its clients, will think they're providing a service, something for which we will actually be grateful, keeping us up to date with the news (which we could do with our phones, if we wished) or even, after rush hour, with the latest developments in soap operas, showbiz news, and the rest of the rubbish with which the airwaves are now mostly filled.
I don't know about you, but when I have to do a long train journey I regard it as a great opportunity to spend a few hours reading a book, and get out at the other end in a seriously good mood that makes the meeting go all the better. Television is part of our lives, inevitably and for good, barring infrastructural breakdown consequent upon some disaster for which none of us would wish; but we have to remember that it, and the people who work for it, are our servants not our masters (the upcoming review of the BBC is a column for another time).
my public library has the most depressing sign in the window: "Kids away? Nothing on TV? Why not rent a DVD or video from your local library?" Er, yes, or maybe take out a book, save the electricity and remind yourself why you went to school. Or, then again, remind yourself why you hated school, and that you love television
because it's something you can talk about with your friends without having to do that awkward "reading" thing, or understand what all that sentence-andparagraph stuff is all about. Yes, I know I've just broken the rules myself, but I'm allowed to because I know what they are. The people to whom television and the supplements now pander neither do or understand why they should. But they have the vote, even if they don't use it, and that's all that matters, isn't it?