Before the legendary David Letterman was the king of American late-night TV, he got his big break with a mid-morning chatshow that stood out for its refusal to take the entire medium of telly seriously. In one episode, Letterman had a TV wheeled on to the set, and proceeded to flick through what was on the other channels and watch those instead. Rival broadcasts were cynically mocked, his own show seemingly forgotten.
Imagine this, but stripped of all wit, humour and scepticism – and instead infused with the kind of clinical self-regard that says: this shit is really important. Congratulations! You’re now picturing the UK’s present daytime schedule. Whole swathes of today’s television programmes are frequently taken up with people apologising for things they said, or did, on other television programmes. Whole sections of shows involve the solemn watching of clips from other shows, with those featured in the first show wheeled on to the next show to defend or prostrate themselves.
Did you do something bad on Celebrity Big Brother? Then you must proceed straight to Loose Women and give your director’s commentary. Did you say something bad on Loose Women? Then you must go on This Morning. Do you wish to clarify the comments you made during your This Morning car crash? Then you need Good Morning Britain. Also, Celebrity Big Brother will be in touch. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already been on – they’re doing a Legends edition of the format next time.
To the old programming divisions, then – drama, news, lifestyle and so on – is added this monster new category: penance. I don’t know who ITV’s Controller of Penance is, but it’s arguably the biggest job in telly. The department certainly dwarfs BBC Comedy.
By way of an example, let’s follow a couple of active cases through the machine. Last week, Celebrity Big Brother contestant Roxanne Pallett claimed that fellow contestant Ryan Thomas punched her. Except he didn’t, and the reason everyone knows this is that Celebrity Big Brother is literally a show where people are filmed from all angles all the time. They have … a lot of CCTV, you know?
Even so, the incident has sparked 25,000 complaints to Ofcom, with the figure rising all the time, despite the fact that Roxanne left the house a week ago. Twenty-five thousand! I had no idea 25,000 people even knew what Ofcom was. I myself had always hoped to make it through without ever finding out. Anyway, the penance process has decided that the only way she can save her career is by being forced to watch the incident on other programmes while begging forgiveness.
She duly went on Jeremy Vine’s new Channel 5 show – but clips of this appearance were promptly aired on Loose Women and attacked. That’s what you get, Roxanne, for purchasing your indulgence from Jeremy and not Loose Women. “There is nothing she could say,” concluded Loose Women’s Denise Welch, “that could convince me that this wasn’t the most horrific thing I’ve seen on television.” I could read that quote a thousand times, and aspects of it would still be unfurling themselves to me like an exquisite lotus blossom.
Or perhaps you prefer another live conflict, with its epicentre in the very Loose Women studios themselves? Another of the panel, Coleen Nolan, was apparently on Celebrity Big Brother with How Clean Is Your House presenter Kim Woodburn more than a year ago, and they didn’t get on. Kim was invited on to Loose Women last week, presumably in the hope that any unexploded ordnance might be detonated. Janet Street-Porter – dressed as a judge – sat between her and Coleen. Unfortunately, so much #conflict was created that Kim walked off the set and, at time of writing, many thousands of complaintshad been made to … hang on, I’ve forgotten it again … UK broadcast regulator Ofcom.
Coleen herself is now too upset to appear on her own show. But the Controller of Penance insisted she went on This Morning, and Coleen duly gave an interview to Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. (Holly will soon be co-presenting top-tier reparations format I’m A Celebrity with Declan Donnelly, because Ant McPartlin has yet to schedule his comeback public apology interview for the bad things HE’S done.) Indeed, perhaps the network has the jungle in mind for Coleen, who has been feverishly linked with an appearance in the Queensland bush ever since the Loose Women row.
In the meantime, Loose Women is locked out of its own shitstorm, forcing Coleen’s fellow panellist Street-Porter to hack in with a Daily Mail column about the drama. This has become a witchhunt, says Goody Street-Porter, who plies her trade on a programme that has ducked more women as witches than the entire European wars of religion. Goody Nolan is not a witch. This is “all the result of a few chaotic minutes of live television”, says Janet.
But isn’t it always? I had assumed the slogan “A Few Chaotic Minutes of Live Television” was emblazoned above the tunnel leading from the Loose Women players’ dressing room and out on to that hallowed set. “A Few Chaotic Minutes of Live Television” is the “This is Anfield” of sexlife reveals, and of telling reality stars they’re no better than they should be, and of wanting to set the record straight about something nobody read in Now magazine.
Was it ever thus? No, is the short answer. But around 2005, TV bosses decided that conflict was now the holy grail of all telly, and shows adjusted their booking requirements accordingly. In time, conflict became so central to the output that it frequently generated conflict that could not be contained within the theatre of war that had erupted. Secondary conflicts broke out and, in retrospect, it feels entirely inevitable that the assassination of Archduke Kim Woodburn was always going to spark a chain of events involving many other parties and lasting until the Christmas schedule. The cycle resolves only temporarily, thanks to its final stage: the making of terrible peace treaties. Saying sorry, agreeing to ritual shamings and reparations, and smouldering until the next outbreak.
And the audience becomes an ever more willing participant. Once, complaints about things on the telly were the pursuit of the 55-plus advertising bracket, and might be expected to be driven by, say, the print edition of the Daily Mail. By the time of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand Sachsgate scandal, the pursuit had gone digital and spread to the 35-54 bracket. If the most recent Big Brother pile-on is any indicator, it has now engulfed even the 16-34 bracket.
Without wishing to go out on a limb here, the days when it was cool to not care too much about anything are now some decades behind us. Caring far too much about everything is now regarded as a badge of honour. Were you part of the 25,000-strong army who lost their minds about something that happened on Celebrity Big Brother? Are you desperately hoping that someone says the wrong word or does the wrong thing on the forthcoming series of I’m a Celebrity, to recreate the thrill ride of dialling in en masse to the … hang on, it’s gone again … UK broadcast regulator Ofcom? Incredible that even Labour is too wet to advocate legalising cannabis when we all mainline dopamine every waking hour.
If I were writing a telly history, I’d say the Age of Sorry comes after the Age of Reality (indeed, could not have come without it). Back in the early 2000s, the fact that some of the US networks differentiated their Vice Presidents of Scripted Reality from their Vice Presidents of Unscripted Reality seemed eyerollingly quaint. That, obviously, was back when the biggest reality star of the era wasn’t actually the leader of the free world. Quite where telly’s raging Age of Sorry will lead us is unclear, but the formbook suggests it won’t be pretty. In fact, it may well require a mass apology to all our descendants.