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The Curiously Engaging Mark Steel

Mark Steel Lectures
If you want a vision of light entertainment in a future socialist society, look no further. And a wonderful vision it is. Intelligent, funny, fascinating. Ordinary words for Lord Reith's Brief.

The challenge for the BBC is to see off those jackals like Murdoch and the rest of the pillagers of our cultural heritage for good and return to us, the British people, some of the family silver which has been pawned over the years.
British TV is in trouble, sliding towards Tennessee trailer trash prolefeed with every line of coke snorted by the contemptuous programmers. The suburban squealers about the licence fee are being conned by the commercial sector not the BBC. Most of the national sporting events, for instance, which I took for granted as a boy are now exclusive delicacies available only to those willing to make Rupert Murdoch richer.
The paltry whingeing about 'the iniquity of the illegal licence fee... taking the bread out of pensioners mouths..' and all the rest of it completely fails to address the fact that without the BBC setting some sort of standards in this country, we would have american TV. Anyone who's ever watched American TV will know. It's simply not TV as we know it. It is a Kay's catalogue in comparison with our (flawed) Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
And yet, the people who objected strongly to BBC2 when it was launched are still out there it seems. And always the same whinges: 'Total waste of the licence fee.' 'Trendy left wing nonsense.' 'The end of civilisation as we know it.' Whereas in fact, BBC2 was one of the things which helped save British culture from the sabotage of the Thatcher years, fighting a rearguard action (with channel4) for stimulating, imaginative television in the face of the overwhelming Pap pressure exerted by the Tunbridge Wells Militia who thought their day had come and that Vera Lynn and Fanny Cradock would return to dominate our screens forever and ever. That Mary Whitehouse would be made DG.

Commercial TV is undoubtedly a constant lie. The act of cutting a film - or even a 20 minute masterpiece like The Simpsons - into tripes in order to sell cheap toasters or reconstituted animal fat in its many forms, is an appalling act of Philistinism, and positively harmful to any growing mind. The purveyors of Mary Whitehouse's ideals should be getting angry at the commercial alienation of children from their parents, prettily euphemised as 'pester-power', the squalid exploitation of children's ability to make their parents lives hell if they want to. They should line up with the Scandinavian countries that have banned children's advertising as dangerous to young minds. Everything I've seen transferred from BBC4 has been a sort of blessed relief from the mindless dross now masquerading as TV.
As for those who complain that comedy is now 'too political' - If they don't like political points, why do they make them? There is no such thing as a 'politics-free' lecture. Mark Steels take on Darwin is a case in point.
Darwin's ideas have to be aired because there are morons out there who will tell you that all science is nonsense, and that the only truth lies between the covers of a much-translated set of fairy tales from the Bronze Age proto-civilisations of the middle east. That's why it needs someone with the guts of Mark Steel to talk about ideas. But sadly, the right wing only wants the BBC to cndemn ideas it disagrees with. Mainly because. as a political 'movement' it is totally devoid of anything which can rightly be called an idea.
What the right has is a back-brain, instincts of the most reptilian kind, which when offended causes them to react violently and blindly. And their idea of 'freedom' on TV would be to be bombarded day and night by the two right wing economic 'ideas' (1. no taxes. 2. let them eat cake!). Everywhere you look there is glaring propaganda for the consumer society. At every dangerous road junction there are forty foot high posters with naked women to distract us. Every tube station, bus stop, empty shop - virtually every vertical space is filled with the message

'Obey. Conform. Consume.'
In every dreary soap opera and costume drama and crime melodrama the same drab acceptance of the political status quo. The retarded inability to imagine anything better than what we have. The latest piece of David Starkey Hero-worship masquerading as history is a case in point. And whatsmore, it is anything but 'free' as is commonly believed. Advertising on TV still costs a lot of money. And someone has to pay for it. And ultimately, every cost of a product is paid by the customer. But since the cost of everything effects the cost of everything else (inflation) everyone has a share, and everyone gets to pay!

There has never, as far as I remember, been any serious coverage of the General Strike and the remarkable stories of courage and community-building that it generated. Nothing about the self-help systems developed by the trades unions to provide hospitals and libraries for their communities. Nothing about what it was actually like to work down a mine or in the shipyards. Except of course in the darkest recesses of the night on the Open University. The alternative media universe.
In fact, if you look for the working class in the British media all you find is a hole. Apart from the criminals and servant classes, who can be relied upon to be either scary or funny as the case demands. Bill Sykes or Sam Weller. That is the working class spectrum which is palatable to the British public, as far as the programmers are concerned.
Needless to say, conventional, suicidal economic theory gets more than its fair share of sympathetic media exposure. In spite of the fact that this country as we know it was created out of the actions of self-confessed socialists like Aneurin Bevan and (in wartime) Winston Churchill of course - one of the secret saints of socialism.
It's totally appropriate to honour that heritage, and its consequences for a sustainable future. What would the tories have, the riveting life story of Julian Amery in twelve parts with commemorative plate to hang on the wall? It's interesting that when socialists are confident or (worse) convincing and entertaining in their beliefs, they are always branded 'strident' and 'boring' by the right. That is a sure sign that they are doing the job properly.


The Future Of TV Advertising in 1999

Tribune 1999

"The fastest generation of technological change since fire.” is how Alan McCulloch of Saatchi & Saatchi described the imminent explosion in digital communications. Richard Eyre’s “communicopia” of choice will be an empowering force for consumers, enabling them to create their own virtual TV channels, with all their favourite viewing stored ready for use whenever needed. With the marriage of delivery systems and content offered by internet convergence, ‘sit back’, one-way TV will end. People will watch what they want to watch.
Increasing numbers of media industry representatives are also predicting that the technology will soon be available to enable viewers to abolish advertising from personal schedules. They also predict that we will not be allowed to use it.
The feasibility of this ‘time-shifting’ technology is not seriously in question: “Within 2 - 3 years, using a ‘Q-Dot’ or similar recognition system.” says Nick Thomas of Bell Pottinger Good Relations (PR to Phillips electronics.)

“It is very likely that in 5-7 years advanced TV systems will include time-shifting systems.” says Mike Kroll, principal researcher in multi-media and networking at the BBC’s Bletchley Park-style research unit at Kingswood Warren in Surrey.

However, its implementation is in doubt. Ray Kelly, chair of the media policy group for the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising, injects the first note of caution:
"It should worry advertisers, but they’re not aware of the technology.”
After being made aware, David Sanderson, director of digital sales at Carlton Digital admitted that with enough take-up, ‘time-shifting’ or ‘AdZAp’ systems "could represent a major disaster, with a downward spiral in advertising revenues.” The industry would therefore “lobby very hard to prevent such a thing from happening.” After all, there would be “little justification for the industry to allow a technology which would put them out of business.”
Roy Addison of Pearson was another who didn’t believe it was “in the industry’s interests to alert the public to such a function.” From promises of limitless bounty to threats of product suppression in three easy accounting stages. In the name of free market ‘Individual Choice’ real choice for real individuals will be compromised. So new?
The Adam Smith Institute was also baffled.
“That’s quite a ‘Catch 22’” admitted their press office. Adding “The technology is almost killing itself.” The A.S.I. would certainly condemn any industry restrictions on ‘AdZAp’ as a restriction of choice, but still stuck to its principles that:
a) What’s good for industry is good for the people.
b) Industry must be allowed to defend its interests.
To add to this chaos, the argument is also re-emerging that commercials are a sort of public service. As well as being entertaining and pretty, they are also informational and educational. Mmm! Delicious AND Nutritious! “People like advertising” and “The public are too apathetic to bother creating their own schedules” I was repeatedly assured. See that Royle Family? That’s you that is.
Even more insulting, watching TV advertising is almost promoted as a civic duty. Because it promotes consumer spending, TV advertising plays a vital cohesive role in our society. Suppressing its dissemination therefore threatens the general good, and must be opposed. In the Middle Ages we had compulsory church attendance, now we have Pot Noodles.
Another defence is the ‘Right of commercial free speech’ recently cited by the advertising industry in its losing battle with the Swedish decision to ban advertising to kids.
So who would want to upset this delicate socio/economic balance by using an ‘AdZAp’ system? How would any manufacturer find a market for such a thing? By calling Alan McCulloch for a start. “I would certainly like one.” he whispered before urging the industry to adapt in order to survive. “TV advertising has to become more interactive. The agencies are failing to create new forms. Their heads are still stuck up their arses doing TV ads.”
In practice this includes abandoning the linear cinematic commercial for the computer game format. ‘Adgames’ could last as long as the player played, and could offer rewards in the form of bonus points or star prizes. The best ads would be the best games, and the ultimate game would be the one which replaced programming entirely. Which solves the problem of influencing children, but what of discriminating viewers such as Mr. McCulloch, who sees “the clever techniques used to influence children” at first hand and therefore appreciates the “very strong case for restricting children’s advertising.”?
And what of the Consumer Society agnostics? The ones who caused all that fuss in Seattle. How will they be prevented from getting the TV they want?
Amid the confusion two things are absolutely clear. Firstly, future TiVo systems and internet bandwidths will make independence from corporate TV scheduling achievable to those who want it. And secondly: if fire has indeed been rediscovered then we must play with it. The woolly mammoths of the media industry would rather we stayed shivering in our caves, but this is just as unlikely now as it was the first time around.
In future the media industry will have to cater for an audience which increasingly knows what it wants, and which has the technology to get it. Java based Software plug-ins such as AdZap will be available (probably free) via the internet, downloading them to your home terminal will be the work of a few minutes, and once there they will work invisibly to remove advertising, or any other definable content. And let’s face it, who would miss it? Then who would pay for it? And how would the companies which depend on it survive?
It would seem that the industry is faced with as many threats as opportunities. It will also have to deal on level terms with human emotions which until now it has merely exploited. Consumers will be aware of the power at their disposal, and very aware of when it is denied them.
In this new buyer’s market for tv, suckers will become clients, with corresponding expectations of service. The one-way, intrusive TV commercial - cheeky monkeys, supermodels, soap-opera plots and all - looks doomed in a market which doesn’t want its' films interrupted every twenty minutes by images of supermodels in flourescent underwear. The difficulty is that the evangelists of the free market, those who think the BBC is ‘pure socialism’, may find the consequences of a genuinely free market in TV too much to allow. Amid the blur of the digital revolution, some things never change. If Tony Blair wants to ‘root out reactonary elements’, he should look no further than his new friends in the media industry.

Addendum. 23/10/08
'Will Ad-Skipping Kill Television?'