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Kevin O’Sullivan on why in dumbed-down Britain, the Big Brother vote means more to some than the EU referendum

Kevin O'Sullivan - Credit: Archant

It’s nine o’clock, family viewing primetime, and I’m watching a young woman bare her huge, surgically-enhanced breasts while she pole-dances for an enthralled roofer who we’re asked to believe is a rising star.

He wasn’t before the current barrelscraping series of Celebrity Big Brother. But he is now. Call it the reality TV effect. Warhol was right. This is our dystopian future and anyone can be famous for 15 minutes.

The fact that the less-than-legendary Stephen Bear and Chloe Khan are prepared to simulate sex, get drunk, swear, scream, hurl food at each other and smash furniture makes them television naturals. There seem to be no depths below which this garish couple cannot sink. The lower they go, the more Channel 5 points the cameras and turns their antics into light entertainment.

That’s showbiz.

During ten years as a TV critic I have witnessed a relentless dumbing down.

Desperately pursuing ratings, the channels (including the food-obsessed BBC) churn out ever-more brainless and vulgar programmes. With Celebrity Big Brother, I’d like to think that this depressing process has reached its nadir. But somehow I doubt it.

Trust me, the worst is yet to come.

Such has been the nature of the Britain’s long, slow cultural descent that we barely notice ITV’s daytime host Jeremy Kyle setting out to establish the truth of the claim ‘My granddaughter’s boyfriend made me pregnant’ with a DNA test. This sort of thing happens three times an hour, five mornings a week. Burly security guards patrol the studio to break up the regular physical fights. The entire soul-destroying spectacle is Hogarthian. It makes its American equivalent, The Jerry Springer Show, look spiritually uplifting.

One judge branded Mr Kyle’s circus ‘a human form of bear-baiting’.

Another criticised it for persuading ‘foolish and gullible people to have their infidelities and insecurities laid bare for the entertainment of the public.’ But, citing the counselling it offers to everyone who appears on its caring programme, ITV strenuously denied the charges and carried on broadcasting.

Insisting that its solemn mission is to test boundaries and challenge taboos, Channel 4 proudly presents Naked Attraction, the dating show in which lonely hearts looking for love choose their partners purely by scrutinising their nude bodies. In minute detail. In the first episode a man with elephants’ ears tattooed on either side of his trunk-like penis blew the opposition away.

No one else stood a chance.

None of this is shocking anymore. We have sleepwalked into an abyss where innocent civilians are effectively sacrificed on the altar of gormless mass entertainment. Welcome to the Colosseum, here come the gladiators. Festering in a moral vacuum, reality TV is a feral form of fun but, hey, it’s popular.

As the television industry

enthusiastically embraces the lowestcommon-denominator approach, we’ll never see another The World At War, Shakespeare hardly gets a look-in and serious documentaries have largely been replaced by ‘shock docs’ about feuding neighbours from hell, 100 year-old drivers, people on benefits and Barbie doll oddballs who have lots of plastic surgery.

Meanwhile, vast audiences tune into The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! and The Great British Bake Off. All about as intellectually taxing as a colouring book.

In terms of drama, serving up a tawdry diet of passion and violence, the soap operas rule. Each night EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale command millions more viewers than Wolf Hall and War And Peace ever did. The populist Beeb prefers to boast about Doctor Who and Sherlock. It’s a simple equation: lowbrow programmes deliver high viewing figures. Therefore, the only way is down.

But does it matter if the TV programmes the punters allegedly love are getting more and more moronic? What’s wrong with a spot of tasteless escapism? To an extent, nothing. However, taking the low road has a pernicious effect. Convinced that the viewing public only wants dumb and dumber, the executives who run the channels are increasingly preoccupied with just one of the three Reithian principles. It’s all about entertainment and who cares about informing and educating?

As a result, news and current affairs programmes are being swept away by a tidal wave of tat. Whatever happened to ITV’s investigative powerhouse World In Action? After 35 years of distinction, it was axed in 1998 due to commercial pressures.

Translation: it was more expensive than You’ve Been Framed. A milestone moment in the downhill slide.

Go back a little further and why did BBC2 cancel Man Alive in 1981? A controversial documentary series that since the sixties had courageously chronicled Britain’s changing society, it was where a certain Esther Rantzen learned her trade. When she started That’s Life in 1973, Esther’s combination of hard-hitting investigations and light-hearted satire was an instant success. Twenty one years later That’s Life died due to lack of interest. Now we get the in-depth journalism of The One Show.

Once the BBC’s current affairs flagship, Panorama is now a half-hour shadow of its former self. BBC2’s Newsnight stands accused of hurtling downmarket to boost its dwindling ratings. Before he jumped ship, Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Russell Brand broke new ground in pointlessness.

Emily Maitlis once fired probing questions at the Cookie Monster. When viewers were asked to send in their home videos, Paxo said on air that the programme he presented for 25 years was turning into Animals Do The Funniest Things. As for BBC1’s weekly Question Time debate, no edition is now complete without an important thinker from the world of show-business.

No matter how venerable they are, if TV shows don’t get the numbers they don’t survive. During the good old days of just four channels, the pressure was less intense.

But now there are hundreds of channels competing for a shrinking audience’s attention, the ratings war is fierce and lethal. In this vicious dog-eat-dog environment, high-quality minority interest programmes are no longer nurtured. They’re axed. Or simply not made.

So is the television industry merely responding to the market? Or, in its frantic attempts to bring in the crowd, is it dumbing down not only its programmes but also Britain? When you can’t find anything interesting to watch, why not just slump on the sofa and tune into show-offs having sex on ITV2’s summer spectacular Love Island?

Or thrill to orange-faced narcissists playing themselves badly on ITVBe’s structured reality nightmare, The Only Way Is Essex? Who needs Blind Date when there’s Stark Naked Date? Nothing much on the box, might as well gawp at micro-stars behaving appallingly on Celebrity Big Brother.

For the purposes of accuracy, I should point out that the aforementioned Chloe Khan has now been evicted from the Big Brother house. Rest assured that many of those who voted for her to leave didn’t bother to vote in the EU referendum. But amid this country’s post-Brexit turmoil, at least they have found an issue to care about.

Has TV dumbed down Britain? You decide.

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