An open letter to television: You’re better than this

I hope 2016 is going well for everyone so far. Mine started with rushing my wife into hospital for three days. On her birthday no less. So that was fun, but I suppose that’s the life of a kidney-transplant husband. At least it keeps life interesting.

Now, I felt reluctant to sully this blog with a rant so early in the year, but that’s what has popped into my mind so that’s what you’re going to get. As it is in our modern world, as someone who feels moral outrage and righteous anger about something I must vent my thoughts and opinions over the internet. Because that’s how it’s done now.

So. Lip Sync Battle.

What the fuck?

This is an thing now? On television? Come on! A quick browse through the all knowing Wikipedia tells me this is a US import that started life as a segment of a US Chat Show. That I can understand. Chat/variety shows do stuff like this. Silly little segments designed to entertain with the ambition of being little more than a little bit of fun. But turning that idea into a TV show in its own right? Really? And now Channel 51 are bringing it over to the UK.

I understand that this post going to come across as my being a total snob, standing up on a beautifully constructed high horse with the word CULTURE written across it in huge letters like some pretentious comic out of The New Yorker. And while I have to admit there is an element of that, I in no way want to look down on “easy” television. Escapism isn’t a dirty word. Life is hard, and we all need to relax. There’s nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure or two, and curling up on the sofa with a book or television show that we know won’t force us to think too hard is a part of life every single one of us enjoys. I grew up watching television and I could never say all of it was particularly good. Even now after coming in from work I’ll put the television on and re-watch episodes of The Simpsons or Futurama that I’ve seen a hundred times while I’m making dinner.

No. The reason that shows such as Lip Sync Battle, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, ad nauseam2 are the lowest pits of the entertainment and televisual worlds is because they neither create or contribute anything of worth.

And I’m not talking about it being merely something I dislike. People enjoy different things and I’m always willing to accept that some things I hate, other people will love. The objective definition of “Good” doesn’t lie with me. No, when I say “Bad Television” what I mean are those shows that are vapid, soulless, and do not create anything new. Shows created with no more ambition than to fill space, promote a product, or maximise profit/investment ratios.

These usually tend to be “celebrity” or “reality” shows. They will either focus around someone famous, on the assumption that fame equals interesting, or on the increasingly depressing concept that that if you put someone on TV they will instantly become a celebrity. And that’s the whole problem with the concept of celebrity; there’s nothing behind it. Famous for being famous. Could there be a more depressing existence? And as it looks so easy there is a seemingly unending slew of people wanting to get fame through simply being on TV, rather than working hard on something to become famous through a skill or talent. 

And this creates a slippery slope. One channel puts out a reality/celebrity show. It does well, so other channels follow suit. Then as people are now watching these shows, TV executives assume that celebrities are a draw. So they put on more celebrity/reality shows. And because there are now more of them, naturally more people are watching them, so executives continue thinking that people want celebrity/reality television so make even more, and people have fewer choices and so watch more of it, so they make more of it, etc., etc., etc., until we reach an ever more depressing televisual ghetto.

And I say ghetto, as that’s the inevitable end of this process. I keep reading articles about how we’re in a Golden Age of Television. How writers and directors are moving more into television over film because of the creative possibilities it offers them. As the internet has matured we have more and more quality on-demand viewing options. Netflix, Sky Box Sets, Amazon Prize. BBC iPlayer. Apple iTunes. 4OD. ITV Player. And so as people now have the option to pick and choose the television they want to watch, their lifestyles and viewing habits are going to change and, like with so much else, the old way we consumed television will slowly die out. We will no longer be stuck with what the schedulers decide to put on.

But of course, the old guard won’t see and/or won’t accept this. And as people go to these online options to get quality, creative shows, it will appear that celebrity/reality shows are growing more popular.

So I guess that shows like Lip Sync Battles aren’t killing off creativity. They’re just a byproduct of an inherent laziness. People willing to make the effort will simply move away to find quality shows elsewhere. I suppose much cleverer people than I could say whether on-demand is a result of this trend, or completely unrelated. But that’s because they’re much cleverer than me.

How does this end? I don’t know. Will broadcast television recognise the changing landscape and proactively change their ways? Will the fashion for celebrities and reality die out and be forgotten? Or will broadcast television eventually become a 24 hour “Daytime TV” ghetto? With nothing but celebrity game shows, reality shows, documentaries about everyday jobs made “exciting” my cheap music and editing; while at the same time all creative dramatic and comedy programme makers will move to on-demand? Is this polarisation of television where we are heading? 

I don’t know. Maybe this entire thing is me being a massive snob. For some reason seeing the trailer for this new “show” just made me angry. Perhaps it’s just that I mostly avoid terrestrial broadcast television nowadays and so haven’t had to think about it, and then seeing hosts Mel B3 and some guy called Professor Green4 prancing about brought the whole depressing industry back to mind.

But if being a snob means wanting the world to put in effort and have pride in what they do, then I can’t see it being a bad thing at all. As long as you don’t go too far and reach the point there you assume you’re better than other people. 

So, please, don’t watch celebrity television. Don’t support laziness. Don’t reward people for being a recognised name and nothing else. Instead, encourage people to be creative. Reward contribution. If someone becomes a household name, it should be for something worthwhile rather than simply getting their picture in the gossip pages.

And for goodness sake, please don’t watch Lip Sync Battle. Whoever you are, you’re better than that.

1 Which says it all really.

2 The fact that this phrase literally means to continue until people are sick is rarely so appropriate.

3 And now we know which of the Spice Girls handled her money the worst by seeing which once is being forced to take celebrity hosting jobs.

4 I’ve no idea either.

Using Found-Footage

For those of you who have read The Serpent’s Eye it will be no surprise to discover that I am a big fan of the found-footage style. But I’m not one of those fans who seeks out examples of the thing they love, no matter the quality. No, I’m one of those fans who has high standards and wants to see the thing he loves handled well. And, like so many tropes in fiction, its easy to get lazy and fall into the pitfalls that await those who don’t try hard enough.

Found-footage is a very effective way to set out a horror story. There isn’t really a simpler way of framing the “this really happened” scenario. But, as with many things, people mistake simple for easy and that they don’t need to put as much effort into it. And through that laziness they miss the one cardinal rule you must follow when you set your story using found-footage.

The reader needs to be able to answer this question: Why and how was the footage recorded.

This is fundamental because without it the entire premise has no basis. If you cannot answer this question without more than a minimal suspension of disbelief then your story will lack plausibility. All fiction needs to the reader to ignore a few points of reality, but that is especially important in horror as one of the main tenants is that you cannot scare a reader who cannot imagine that everything they are reading could plausibly happen.

The one thing that was always at the forefront of my mind while I was writing The Serpent’s Eye was keeping up a believable reason for the character to keep writing.It was easy to set up the principle of the journal he was keeping to take notes for his work, but why would he continue? What were the reasons for the parts he included, and for the parts he didn’t? How could I keep the tension growing and the right elements of the story on the page without making it feel forced?

To offer you an example of how this can be handled badly, I offer up a film rather than a book. The movie Cloverfield has a brilliant concept; a Godzilla movie told from the point of view of one of the crowd. The story is shown from the point of view of a group of friends who were filming a birthday party when the monster attacks. The fact that they continue filming as this happens makes sense. In today’s society we can easily believe that people would film an unusual occurrence without thinking.

But that plausibility quickly fades. As the film continues, the characters are put in situations where the fact that they continue filming becomes less and less believable. This includes a section where they climb a collapsed skyscraper. There is no need or reason offered for them to carry on recording. And once you hit the point where you can no longer believe what is happing in the story it loses all power to affect you. And above that, it’s lazy.

If you are looking to write something in the found-footage style, then please remember that there are no plot-points, styles or tropes that you can use that will work without effort. The effect of the found-footage trope may be simple, but that does not mean it’s easy.

Nothing leads to ‘lazy’ faster than ‘easy’.