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Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Cheap as chips

Another night on British TV, another profusion of 'lifestyle' shows. And it's the BBC that seems to be broadcasting more of these programmes than anyone else.

They include a particular glut of antiques programmes, with five BBC shows on the go;
Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, Car Booty, Cash in the Attic and Flog It!

If you're old enough to remember that genteel TV antiques show Going for a Song (the original 60s version), you'll recall how resident expert Arthur Negus would lovingly describe the features of each antique. In that innocent era, guessing the auction value was almost an afterthought.

In today's crop of shows, aesthetics are out of the window and the focus is firmly on the money angle, with venal suburbanites desperate to see how much cash they can get for their family heirlooms. The BBC might as well merge all its so-called antiques programmes into one big game show called 'What's It Worth, Mate?'

There are even more shows about housing (or 'property' as we must learn to call it). The BBC's offering includes
Changing Rooms, DIY SOS, Escape to the Country, House Invaders, Houses Behaving Badly, To Buy or Not to Buy and Trading Up.

Once again, the emphasis is on making money, whether buying, selling or tarting a place up so that it's worth more. The original function of a house, as a place to live, has almost been forgotten. Given that moving house is said to be the third greatest trauma in our lives (after bereavement and divorce), it's a mystery why anyone should seek out this experience unnecessarily.

Gardening, cookery, health, child-rearing, household budgeting and getting dressed also feature on this smorgasbord of televisual domestic advice.

What does this tell us? For a start, this formulaic programming tells us that the BBC is protecting its right flank through shameless populism.

But the popularity of these shows also tells us a great deal about British society. Consumer choice is a relatively recent innovation for most British people, who have had access to a disposable income and a real choice of goods for only about 30 or 40 years. Before then, it would have made little sense to talk of 'lifestyle', because the economic, social and moral constraints of everyday life would not have offered much realistic choice.

Now that we have all this choice, it turns out that most of us don't know how to cope. It's not so much that people are bewildered by the wide choice of options, rather that they wish to exercise their choice within safe bounds. Clothing is a good example. Which of us really, honestly, dresses originally? This is where fashion comes in. Its limits enable us to exercise a degree of choice while minimising the risk of being socially ostracised.

TV lifestyle shows are supplying a form of social guidance, which illustrates a further problem. Most of us have lost our extended families and traditional social networks. With older family members no longer on hand to offer sage advice, we turn to the media.

But the media have advertising space to sell, and rely on PR people to supply most of their story ideas, so the consumer information we receive tends to be an incitement to consume dressed up as friendly advice.

Shrewder viewers reassure themselves that the BBC is more trustworthy because it carries no advertising or sponsorship. That popular trust makes the BBC a very attractive proposition to people trying to flog you their wares. Anyone who thinks that BBC lifestyle shows contain no advertising is technically correct while missing the product placements.

What is most depressing about all these lifestyle shows, however, is that they are evidence of a desperate spiritual poverty. They suggest that most people are living their lives on the surface, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. People are seeking happiness through conspicuous consumption, and validation through being self-referential. The obsession with 'lifestyle' illustrates the commercialisation of everyday experience and the empty lives most people now lead.

Still, there is one bright prospect on the horizon. House prices have begun to
fall. If the collapse is great enough, people will lose their appetite for property speculation, which might persuade the BBC to find a more creative use for its airtime.

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