Shiny Shelf


History (of) Repeating

By Eddie Robson on 30 August 2005

Under pressure from Ofcom, Michael Grade has announced that repeats will be phased out from BBC1 and BBC2 over the next ten years. The report I read (which was on the BBC) didn’t say whether this was a complete abandonment of repeats: I’d heard that it was only the prime-time schedules which were to be cleared of second-run programming.

It sounds like a major project, and of course that’s how Grade wants it to sound, as he’s using it as ammunition in the push for further funding. But where has this sudden fear of repeats come from? I remember back in the 1980s when ‘repeat’ was a dirty word. If something was a repeat, it could only be because the broadcasters were trying to save some money. Therefore, the viewers were being gypped.

In fact, going back further, actors’ fear that repeats would take over the schedules and they’d all be out of work was responsible for a great deal of programmes being destroyed. More than one repeat was prohibited by the unions, so a programme had been on twice and its overseas sales life was exhausted, there was no other way of exploiting it. I see hostility towards repeats as damaging: as well as encouraging quantity over quality, it has consigned many great programmes to the vaults where nobody can enjoy them, and indeed has even resulted in programmes being lost forever.

But since the charter review we’ve heard an awful lot about the BBC offering value for its licence fee payers, and repeating a programme has now been judged poor value for money. On the face of it, this seems to make sense, but I would (and am about to) argue the precise opposite, that not repeating a programme offers poor value for money.

I can understand how viewers initially resisted the notion of repeats. In the 1950s and 1960s, where there were only a couple of channels and they were only on for a few hours a day, it was reasonable to expect a keen television viewer to have seen a high proportion of a channel’s offerings, especially if they favoured one channel over another. But these days there are hundreds, and many of them are on 24 hours whether they have anything worthwhile to broadcast or not. It’s much easier to miss a programme than it used to be.

Ah, but of course we’ve moved on in other ways. We’ve got video and DVD recorders and Sky Plus, and experiments with broadband streaming are happening as we speak (the BBC is trying it with a drama for the first time this week, with ‘The Mighty Boosh’). But, like an awful lot of recent developments in television, to rely solely on these mechanisms would ignore what makes television special: not all that misty-eyed nonsense about communal viewing and everybody watching Morecambe and Wise together at Christmas, but the fact that TV’s linear stream means that you can stumble over something that you might not otherwise have seen.

In the multichannel morass this becomes progressively less likely, but it’s one of the joys of the medium. Last week I put in some idle channel-surfing time and learned that Nick Park’s main inspiration for Wallace and Gromit was Ealing comedy (‘Animation Nation’), that FIFA is one of the few organisations to recognise the state of Palestine (‘Frontline Football’) and that there’s a Japanese tennis videogame where all the players are dressed in popular cosplay fetishes (‘When Games Attack’). These are, to me at least, all interesting facts.

Every one of these programmes was a repeat, and in some cases I’d considered watching the programmes on their initial broadcast but been too busy. I eventually saw them because sometimes I just like to watch whatever’s on (if I can’t find anything I’ll watch Sky Sports News). It’s the sheer easiness of television which gives it greater penetration than any other medium, but that easiness only comes with broadcast slots. It doesn’t come through expecting people to record or stream a programme (another example of how the TV industry overrates how committed most viewers are).

The best way to build an audience for a show is to give people more than one chance to see something. BBC3 has illustrated the benefit of this by showing pretty much everything multiple times, although the fact that every other programme seems to be an episode of ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ does verge on overkill.

As I said, this repeats issue is also a budgetary one, and again I think it offers poor value to spread budgets over lots of programmes. Nobody can watch everything: I have a wide interest in TV and make time for it, but even I don’t watch all the programmes I’m interested in. I pick and choose. This being the case, I don’t see the need for the BBC to up its productivity: there are already more programmes than I can watch.

I’d rather they put the resources into making better programmes and giving them proper exposure. Instead of churning out cheap filler programmes to surround them, take advantage of previous successes to boost the schedule (as Channel 4 often does, leading into a high-profile new comedy with a repeat of ‘Friends’ or ‘Father Ted’). Given the choice between a good programme that’s been on before (but which you may well not have seen) and some mediocre piece of ballast, what would you rather watch?


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By Eddie Robson




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