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The Radio Times is going downhill

August 18, 2013

I think it’s important, when you enjoy media, to occasionally analyse why it is you like it, when it might have changed, and what changes might be leading you to enjoy it less, if that appears to be the case. Often we refuse to acknowledge issues with things that we like, for fear that we will lose something that once gave us joy or, after a while, just plain old comfort.

When there’s a problem with something, I always assume first that it’s an issue with me. Perhaps I have grown up and away from whatever it is. I’m still growing and my brain is changing, so it’s not always easy for me to know for sure whether I’m experiencing things differently because they have changed or because I have changed. In this case, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure it’s the publication that’s changed.

I’ve been reading The Radio Times, a long running and established television and radio guide complete with reviews, articles and recommendations, for some years now. These days, more and more things happen that make me annoyed at the publication. I’m just ranting, but I think these elements represent a wider problem. Which is a fancy way of saying I’m just ranting.

– Ratings for biographical pieces. Every film gets a review, equipped with a star rating so you can see at a glance how good the film is. This is problematic in itself, but especially dodgy for certain genres. As far as I can tell, a biographical piece on someone who no one knows about that is an interesting piece of cinema will get a good rating (The Social Network = 5 stars, the top rating).

However, a biographical drama about a very famous historical / political figure (for example, Margaret Thatcher) will be subject to storms of criticism if it is not a)  100% accurate b) still somehow utterly fascinating from start to finish, the way we all are when we eat dinner and raise children, and c) aligning with the personal opinion of the reviewer, who may or may not have experience in the matter but will almost certainly have some strong political pull one way or the other.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t especially enamoured with The Iron Lady. I thought it was messy directorially: unfocused, uninformed and premature. But I did like The Lady, the story of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. I could tell, without knowing anything about the subject, that it attempted to be a more objective peace of fiction and I’d say it was paced well, emotionally poignant and a good starting point for anyone who is not particularly educated on the subject, i.e., me. The Radio Times called it “worthy” (is that a criticism…?) and gave it one star.

One star?! Let me explain one star to you. One star is what you give to the vilest, most offensive, trashiest, ill-conceived, boring, tactless, substanceless, lazy pieces of work. It is not for whatever you deem to be slightly inaccurate, moralistic, slow or overly long. By and large these would be fair criticisms of The Lady, not ones I agree with, but fair. One star is ludicrous. It angers me because it suggests that The Radio Times thinks that The Lady, educational as it is, is less worth watching than Happy Gilmore, which they gave 2 stars. As for my thoughts on comparing two such different pieces of work, see my final bullet.

– Missing the point. There are a few examples of this and they mostly escape me, so I’ll give you just the one lunker: Never Let Me Go. The reviewer for Never Let Me Go noted that it seemed like the individuals who *spoilers* were bred for the specific purpose of being living vital organ donors */spoilers* had no worse lives than anyone else – and added “perhaps that was the point”, somewhat lamely.

Hello? It seemed? Perhaps that was the point?! Well, have a fucking medal; it was directly stated in the film. Plus, it was undeniably the main point of the book on which the film was based, which suggests the reviewer hadn’t so much read the back cover or skimmed the Wikipedia page before making the review. This kind of basic research I would have thought a prerequisite for talking about “the point”. Sheesh! I suppose on the upside, The Radio Times clearly judges any film based on a book by its own merits, not merely by comparison. They don’t have much choice, really, do they, if they don’t read them.

– Article drop in quality. Look, I don’t mind the odd piece about a celebrity as long as they are respectful in tone. Some of those people, regardless of why they are famous, are genuinely interesting. This can be captured by a good journalist. On the flip side of this are discussions about who is the most attractive X, and adulations of various rather terrible Saturday night TV shows. I get that they have to sell the shows to sell the mag, but Christ, hold something back.

Other articles are more rounded, personal opinion pieces, some good and some bad. There are reoccurring contributors, like the woman who is a decent writer and usually has solid points with plenty of objectivity, but also sports a tendency to include feminist rhetoric in her articles. While feminism itself isn’t a problem, it’s of that slightly alienating “Men won’t be reading this, so we won’t worry about what they think” style.

Um… I don’t know if anyone told you, but The Radio Times is not Cosmopolitan magazine. There is a time and a place to behave like you’re in a single sex commune where nary an eyebrow will be raised about your strange and unsubstantiated theories about the nature of Men In General (as if there is such a thing), built entirely on your personal experience of your husband / son / brother / father. A television mag probably isn’t it. What can I say, I hate gung-ho, we’re-all-in-it-together gender speak. I hate it on men and I hate it on women. It’s just so… Infantile. Yet the best of us do it, and I hate to be reminded of that by a seasoned journalist. I guess I figure she should know better.

Even RT’s permanent staff writers seem to get away with saying whatever they want; in addition to a couple of new additions who I think are alright writers, but not good enough for the standard I’ve come to expect from RT, long-time staff have been left unchecked for too long. Alison Graham, my favourite columnist as she is, managed to get away with saying all sorts of way-off-the-mark stuff about TV presenter accents, which in fact prompted me to write this.

– The letters page. Though RT actively encourages responses to the Alison Graham column and other articles, they do not fairly represent the responses. More page space and (subtly) more credence was given in the letters page to the person agreeing with Graham’s point (who added nothing new to the discussion, I might add) than to the person against it, despite there being a tonne of things that could have been said.

On a related note, the star letter is almost always someone whining; this week, someone got themselves into a tizzy about how Russell Brand, oh Evil Russell Brand, was given a spot on Desert Island Discs, which I can’t imagine ever caring about anyway. Apparently, he should be filled with sorrow and repentance about some prank call he made a while back, because apparently it is the public’s business if some joker rings some other bloke not very respectfully when both of them just happen to be famous. More on this here. In any case, the only reason to print it was because it was the badly masked opinion of someone at RT.

– No self-criticism. Most good publications I’ve read know they make mistakes and admit it, as a good way of showing they are listening to their readers, not just cherry picking feedback for the sake of self-congratulation. The Radio Times will accept slights on the BBC, ITV and beyond but no criticism of itself. I have written a fair few letters asking them diplomatically if they would mind addressing one or two aspects of the publication but not a word of acknowledgement has come my way.

I think it is damned unacceptable to refer to the tragically and brutally murdered real-life transman Brandon Teena as “a woman dressed up as a man”, considering that it was that very misinformed perception that got him killed in the first place. This is what they do every single bloody time a TV channel is airing Boys Don’t Cry. Even Channel 4, known for having problems in the way it represents certain groups of people, makes a better effort; “The Pregnant Man” is at least accepting of that person’s gender identity, despite how obviously sensationalist and manipulative it is as a feature title.

– Grumpy cinema goers. I love the cinema and I get that it’s all too easy to rate something higher because it looks good on the big screen. I get, also, that as a reviewer you often second guess yourself and try to be objective, so it makes sense to take the rating down a bit in compensation.

But not that much! There is often a rating difference of 1-2 stars in a Radio Times TV airing compared to a cinema one and it is usually an upward change, which they never address, like we all haven’t noticed and like we won’t want answers. In a total of 5 stars, a 2 star difference is literally the difference between “bad” and “good”, “average” and “very good”.

Am I going crazy, or did the remake of Brighton Rock raise from one star to three? Again with the one star problem; that film had Helen Mirren in. No way was it one star. If you can give Rat Race, a bad movie, 3 stars for having an all-star cast of sometimes-dodgy comedians, you can give Brighton Rock, a movie that is at least based on a good book and a good original movie, 3 stars for just for starring Helen Mirren. It’s Helen Mirren. She’s one of those people who is worth a whole star on her own. At least.

Probably, the existence of an older version had a heavy effect on the overall first experience of the new film, due to a general inability to judge things on their own merits. More on that below.

– Rating changes. When the reviewers make a preliminary decision, if you disagree you can at least be content that these are just people’s opinions, dependent on background, culture and experience both in general and in the specific genre, often in contrast to your own.

However, when a rating changesthat’s a different kettle of fish. Why would The Hours lose a star, and Kick-Ass gain one? The likelihood is to reflect popular opinion, which often doesn’t match reviewers’; I suspect in the case of Kick-Ass, they (like many critics) wished to pretend like they had never drastically overreacted to the violence and swearing, though they at least did fall short of hailing Kick-Ass as a symbol of All That Is Wrong With The World. Coinciding with the rating increase, staff writer Andrew Collins stuck up for it intelligently in a recent issue of RT, marking one of the better articles to have occurred in the last few months.

But, since they obviously continue to rate new stuff the same way as always because they can’t, y’know, switch out their personalities, that makes the whole publication bewilderingly inconsistent. We won’t cover here the general inconsistency of critics when it comes to issues such as originality and / or objection to adult content; I’m sure there’s a lot of personal disagreement amongst colleagues that is hard to resolve and sways from one direction to another a lot. Of course, that is a good reason to hire people of a similar ilk.

What’s that? You can’t compare The Hours and Kick-Ass because they’re completely different? Nonsense. Comparing within genre is even more misleading than disregarding it, because you are comparing in accordance to set tropes that you have become accustomed to – to the extent that you become blind to its tedium and its faults, instead finding so much comfort in familiarity that you can’t be without it.

The same is true of films made in particular time periods; an old movie is not worth more by virtue of being “first”. Either is stands the test of time or it doesn’t; acknowledging the effect it had on the public in the period it was made is not the same as stubbornly claiming that it has the same effect today. The concept isn’t enough to carry it because anyone can arrive at an idea. It’s delivery that counts.

Better to look for an overall experience, without getting bogged down in the details of how much tropiness each feature can get away with without becoming clichéd, or whether or not this-thing-came-before-that-thing. Action movies and Westerns can be subtle, well-paced and socially important regardless (not because of) their adherence to tropes. That makes them absolutely comparable to a drama like The Hours, and in a much more meaningful way. After all, everything good has drama.

The public look to reviews for guidance in deciding how best to spend their leisure time. When it comes to a magazine subscription, readers pick which reviewers’ advice they will take in the future based on how much they have agreed in the past. They want opinions and they want consistency.

Now, maybe there’s simply been a staff change and this explains the opinion shift, but most of the time, names (or indeed, initials) won’t mean anything to readers. People will look at the publication as a whole. The new writers (or the updated opinions of the old writers) aren’t in keeping with what we’re accustomed to and that means long-time subscribers have to go elsewhere to get the tone and quality they desire.

I get this bad feeling RT just wants to be more fashionable to compete with the trash-TV magazines out there, who clearly set out to cross TV with celebrity culture and do so successfully. But at the same time, RT clings to its roots. Trying to win everyone round is always a mistake. It is losing me because it is trying to cater for both me and an acquaintance of mine who thinks that the vapid main character from Legally Blonde is some kind of role model. The problem is, that person doesn’t buy RT. She wouldn’t even consider ever buying a review mag. What’s the point in trying to win her round?

In short, stop using the committee to design the horse, only to wonder why you end up with a camel. You had a reason for your opinions, so stick to them. By all means embrace other schools of thought, discuss, give everything a second chance, think twice… But don’t just plop another star on the end of something because the public complains that They Like The Thing, so you must be wrong. Have some pride and integrity.

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