Why the BBC stopped getting primetime pop music shows right

Much of the music industry is a-buzz at the moment regarding the autumn TV schedules. The reason? BBC One is putting pop music back at the heart of Friday night telly for the first time in 12 years, with a new six part series, Sounds Like Friday Night.

Hosted by BBC Radio 1’s current Chart Show host Greg James, and Dotty from BBC 1Xtra, and produced by Fulwell73, the production company that James Corden partly owns and is thus behind the incredible success of The Late Late Show in America, the press release for the series promises live studio performances and interviews, and a different guest hosting each week.

All sounding good, until you read further. There’s talks of ‘sketches’ with the stars. There’s promises of ‘keeping in touch with music fans across social media streams’. And then suddenly any hope I have towards this project is rapidly diminishing, and the first episode doesn’t air for another two weeks yet. I shall elucidate henceforth.
Now of course, the BBC’s ability to drop a ratings clanger in a hype of pre-publicity without any semblance of reality of how it’s more likely to actually succeed or fail with viewers is well documented – Eldorado, anyone? – but there’s something about this that feels curiously like history repeating, and for that, one has to cast their minds back to the early 00s.

Top of the Pops, the Beeb’s longest running flagship chart music programme was, at the start of the millennium, ‘still number one’ as per the tagline delivered by Jayne Middlemiss / Jamie Theakston / Zoë Ball / whoever else happened to be available to host it that week. But with the rise of CD:UK, ITV’s Saturday morning pop show hosted by Ant and Dec with Cat Deeley, and then Channel 4’s brilliant Popworld with the deliciously witty golden odd couple of Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver arriving on the scene to better ratings and rave reviews, TOTP‘s ratings and kudos went into freefall somewhat.

What also came was a series of harried and excitement free rehashes of the format, culminating in the one that stone cold killed off a once great show. The final mutation of TOTP was helmed by former Broom Cupboard reprobate Andi Peters. A legend of kids TV, who’d masterminded Channel 4’s phenomenally successful teen strand T4 on Sunday mornings, which helped launch the careers of Dermot O’Leary, Nick Grimshaw and Jameela Jamil to name a few, he seemed like the man for the job, and the one that would get Top of the Pops out of the ratings dumper it had slid into.

The man he chose to front his relaunch was MTV VJ Tim Kash, who proclaimed upon being signed up for the job of having an encyclopedic knowledge and love of 50 Cent (then one of Radio 1’s artists du jour) and a hatred of Gareth Gates. OK, Gareth wasn’t the greatest pop star of that time, but he certainly wasn’t the very worst. A quick scan of the press release for the then All New Top of the Pops from November 2003, with promises of new, exciting content and features, reveals some worrying parallels with it’s now 2017 equivalent in Sounds Like Friday Night. And a view of the one video on YouTube that exists of the relaunched TOTP from that fateful Friday evening in November 2003 confirms why viewers hit their ‘off’ buttons in droves before it was finally pulled from the schedules for good in July 2006.

There are music writers and lovers from that time who wrote about this sorry state of affairs far better than I ever could, notably, William B Swygart of the renowned 00s music blog Stylus Magazine (his review of the show thankfully preserved by the Wayback Machine). He particularly hits the nail on the head here with what has been the BBC’s approach to pop music full stop since the early 00s:

‘…[it’s an] utterly hollow construction, clearly designed by people who believe that ‘pop’ is cheap crap to be foisted upon the young people and is only of any use for selling stuff. Hence the repeated cries of ‘live’, the attempt to imply that because they are singing live that means they are somehow ‘proper music’…

…Perhaps this shouldn’t be so annoying. After all, as Popjustice.com points out, CD:UK is better than this, and we can just watch that instead. But I can’t help but be angry. The previous incarnation of Top Of The Pops was crap, and this should have been a golden opportunity to rectify matters, to try and introduce new ideas. Instead we have a facsimile of other people’s ideas, thrown together with a few glace cherries on top in the hope that ratings are boosted by virtue of it being in a superior timeslot to the programme it’s ripping off. It failed to bring across CD:UK’s most important idea, though – the idea that pop matters.

This idea of pop being ‘cheap crap’ didn’t end at the Beeb’s televisual output, mind. It also extended to the corners of the Radio 1 schedules that tied in neatly with TOTP, namely the Official Chart Show, which, still in its Sunday afternoon 4-7pm slot, had struggled greatly to retain listeners or interest at a time when its longest running and best host Mark Goodier had vacated the show (more on whom later this week, readers) and when single sales in the pre-download/streaming age had hit the skids. Their answer? A series of bumbling or ill suited replacements came and went in Mark’s place, fronting versions of the weekly top 40 singles rundown that again, focussed on ‘content’ and mind numbing features like ‘celebrity gossip’ and ‘DVD charts’ and made a point of laughing at or talking all over the top of new entries or records that weren’t on the Radio 1 playlist and were thus ‘not cool’. JK and Joel, I am looking at you.

Everything about Sounds Like Friday Night already has parallels with fourteen years ago for all the wrong reasons. The focus on ‘exciting features and content’. The unswerving reliance on social media and the commodification of viewers or listeners. The sure-to-be blatant copying of already good TV shows that are just as easily obtainable on YouTube – the Carpool Karaoke segment of The Late Late Show for one – and the idea that pop will start and end with lowest common denominator, Radio 1 playlist only approved artists. Jason Derulo and Liam Payne are the first guests on the first two shows, for crying out loud.

The ratings that the annual Christmas Day edition of TOTP still gets year in year out since it was axed as a full time weekly show – and even the BBC Four reruns of the show on Thursday evenings – proves that there’s life and interest out there for a straight ahead pop music show that just focusses on performances and pop music, plain and simple, which is what the show was really good at. Trying to make a show of the same calibre look exciting with a load of unnecessary bells and whistles isn’t helping anybody’s case, quite frankly. And when this gets beaten in the ratings, as it is likely to in it’s 7:30pm slot against Coronation Street on the other side in two weeks’ time, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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