Raymond Snoddy on media: How to snuff out television icons

Television programmes come and go, but, by any standards, it has been a heavy few days for TV nostalgia.

On Sunday, Sir Jimmy Savile turned out the lights on 42 years of Top of the Pops on BBC Two on Sunday to the consternation of several generations of 'pop pickers', just after the picture of president Jed Bartlet was finally removed by a handyman on The West Wing.

The decision to axe the US show is the stranger of the two. The eight-year administration of Jed Bartlet comes to an end, to be replaced by the new era of his Democratic successor, Matthew Santos. What better chance to refresh the story line with a raft of new characters, and no need to kill off any existing ones. Yet the possibility of eight more years of a ground-breaking TV series has been snuffed out.

Haven't these people heard about the importance of developing and investing in brands over the long term? Maybe they were afraid of upsetting the advertisers.

Of course, in the case of Top of the Pops, its declining viewing figures could not be ignored. In its heyday in the 70s, it pulled in audiences of 17m, but, by its final days, this had slumped to little more than 1m viewers.

But, shouldn't more effort be made to resuscitate and reinvent TV icons?

Consider the folly of Michael Grade's decision to axe Dr Who, and all those missing years before it was decided the Daleks were not so passe after all.

The trouble is that it is much easier to get rid of programmes that have seen better days than wrestle with what to do to make them relevant to a rapidly-changing world.

In fact, the BBC has a well-honed procedure for killing off TV icons, designed to head off viewer upset or opposition.

First, announce the programme is moving from BBC One to BBC Two, thereby slashing the audience. Naturally, this is accompanied by a relaunch, which removes any sense of the familiar and helping to undermine loyalty.

It also helps to ensure that the relaunch is botched, although, the audience can sometimes unaccountably rise despite everybody's best efforts.

If this happens, plans must quickly be put into place to stop events spiralling out of control. Here, the judicious leak works wonders.

Whisper that the programme is about to be axed and you have yourself a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the great moments from the Top of the Pops saga, was listening to top BBC executives explain that the issue had been fully discussed with everyone including the production team.

Cut to Top Of The Pops producer, explaining that the first she knew about the impending execution was a call saying the story was in MediaGuardian.

Of course, the BBC will pretend that nothing of any importance has happened and, anyway, there is bound be a Christmas special and the Top of the Pops library will be regularly mined to appeal to those trying to relive their disreputable youth.

The defining mark of a BBC executive is the ability to justify almost anything. The news guys can wax plausible about 'exclusive' interviews with Gary Glitter - ex of Top of the Pops. Current affairs executives can swear for seven years that a Sunday-night graveyard slot, and fewer editions of Panorama is perfect, until someone decides that maybe primetime weekday is better, after all.

The music industry has changed more than most, but TV should note that it is easier to kill off 'tired' programme brands capable of lasting 40 years than it is to invent new ones.

Ask ITV. It provides proof of the premise week in week out.


- Top of the Pops debuted on 1 January 1964 in a studio that had been converted from a church, in Longsight, Manchester.

- Sir Jimmy Savile presented the first show, which included The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and The Beatles, who were at number one that week with I Want to Hold Your Hand.

- It traditionally aired on Thursday nights, but moved to Friday in 1996, and to Sunday evenings on BBC Two in 2004.

- The show's spin-offs include TOTP2 (1994-2004), which featured archive footage from earlier shows.

- The hour-long final show was aired on 30 July 2006 and was co-presented by Edith Bowman, Pat Sharp, Sir Jimmy Savile and several other former presenters.

- Top of the Pops magazine and its website will continue to run despite the show's demise.


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