The Cosgrave Challenge

By D. Parry and A. Bromberg

Dear Vertigo,

Stuart Cosgrave’s challenge to readers (Number 4) looks tempting – the chance of a commission for anyone who can think of a programme too hot politically for Channel 4 to make! But, like an insurance policy, the moment you think about it for real you start to see a string of get-out clauses.

The snags begin with the wording. The programme has to be something the channel couldn’t rather than wouldn’t do, which seems to rule out anything it isn’t physically impossible to make, and Stuart has to think it’s ‘a good idea’. In other words, as the TV gatekeepers have always said, ‘You can make anything as long as I like it.’

This last condition is particularly inhibiting given Cosgrove’s comments about the kinds of things he doesn’t want. Judging from these, anything with a historical dimension would definitely not be ‘a good idea’. So a programme concerned with political change would presumably be a non-starter. He also emphasises an antipathy to ‘élite’ appeal which sounds tough and radical until you start trying to pin down what he means by ‘élite’. One of the few clues is the reference to not wanting to address minorities unless they can be defined culturally and share a subcultural or ethnic agenda. This is still vague but sounds very like an oblique way of saying that he is not interested in material which might be seen as ‘difficult’ unless it has specific subcultural appeal. And this, because political ideas are often difficult, seems likely to rule out a very large range of potentially provocative ideas.

But the problems do not stop with trying to second guess Stuart’s judgement about ‘good ideas’. For the question of whether a programme is subversive or not has to do with a great deal more than the programme itself. An exposé of some overpriced junk food product might pass unnoticed in a science programme but cause a furore if dropped into the middle of a popular game show. Stuart cannot take an autonomous decision to commission and schedule that kind of material.

All this adds up to the familiar pattern whereby TV is seamlessly controlled by self-censorship on the part of both commissioners and programme makers. Within a few minutes of considering Stuart’s offer we’d crossed off all our subjects either because they did not sound like Stuart’s agenda or because we doubt that he’s in a position to do them.

The point is to come up with something which would stretch Stuart’s brief. So, how about a series of short items on topical subjects, one to three minutes in length, which are not destined for a particular slot but are dropped into the schedule at random , and mainly in prime time? They will touch on issues that are current and well milked on TV and in the press – like football crime, unemployment, obesity, single mothers, OJ Simpson – but will offer a perspective which is either missing or secreted in hard-to-find places, like a specialist or sectarian media. Some will provide a piece of information, others an unfamiliar viewpoint or provocative mini-analysis. The style will vary from face to camera address, to animation, ‘commercials’ and short visual essays. Costs, averaged out, would be very reasonable. How about it Stuart? Further details available on request.

D. Parry and A. Bromberg