A couple of weeks ago a new book discussion programme launched. It was hosted by a popular, well-known writer and journalist, sported a well-designed, cosy set abundant in brown leather sofas and antiquarian maps, and featured a trio of telegenic women discussing their latest books.
So far, so standard, right?
Except that this book show wasn’t on TV. And it wasn’t made by a broadcaster or a production company.
This show was on Youtube and it was produced by a publisher - Pan Macmillan - in what they describe as ‘the world’s very first global internet book show’, Book Break. The publisher’s aim is, according to the press release, ‘to make known the very best author stories from Pan Macmillan’s considerable pool of talent, and to do so in a way that felt fresh and irreverent.’
It’s a laudable aim and an interesting endeavour. As soon as Macmillan began to promote Book Break on Twitter, my first thought was: ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that before?’ Given the growth in online video over the past five years, it seems strange that publishers haven’t mined the potential for this kind of promotion until now.
Except that the timing is critical. Book Break is clearly a response to something more disconcerting going as regards books in the media.
And that’s the death of the book on mainstream TV.
This time last year there were two regular discussion programmes devoted to, or heavily featuring, books: BBC 2’s The Review Show and Mariella’s Book Show on Sky Arts. Last April, The Review Show was moved from a weekly slot on BBC 2 to a monthly outing on BBC 4. And within three months, Sky Arts had announced they were cancelling their book show altogether.
Go back a little further into the TV archives - and I’m talking years rather than decades - and you see just how much the books-on-TV landscape has changed. Not so long ago there was Richard and Judy’s Book Club on Channel 4 (axed in 2009), while on BBC 2, Late Review (latterly The Review Show) had been a weekly staple in the schedule for years (albeit in a constantly shifting slot, much to the frustration of viewers). And beyond discussion programmes there were entire series devoted to authors and their works.
In the early 2000s, I ran programme development for BBC Arts: it seems almost inconceivable now, but we had drama-documentaries on prime-time BBC 1 about Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes; there was a BBC 2 series on Dickens and another featuring popular books through the decades. And then there was The Big Read, a year-long campaign to find the nation’s favourite novel, with extensive coverage across prime-time TV, radio and online, not to mention in libraries, bookshops and schools up and down the country.
I can just imagine the tumbleweed moment in a commissioning meeting if you tried to pitch that now.
I don’t want to sound like one of those out-of-touch harbingers of doom lamenting the golden days of Arts TV. Having worked in television for fifteen years, I know things have to change. And the truth is, TV commissioners aren’t moving or cancelling book discussion programmes because viewers are coming to them in droves: they’re cancelling them because they very rarely reach sizeable audiences. And it’s hard to justify spending tens of thousands of pounds on shows that just don’t get bums on seats.
But all this begs the question: how do you make programmes about books that people actually want to watch? And who - or what - should fill the gap left by the absence of books on mainstream TV?
Macmillan clearly hope they’ve found the answer. And it is an answer, of sorts. But you can’t escape the fact that Book Break is essentially PR (albeit very creative PR) for Macmillan’s authors. And that, as such, what readers - and viewers - are still missing is any objective discussion about books and their content.
Personally, I’m not someone who’s particularly interested in the same small handful of critics pontificating and pronouncing on the latest literary releases, as though their opinion matters more than any other reader’s: even when I worked as a producer on Late Review I found those kinds of discussions exclusive and often patronising, so I’m certainly not advocating the return of the critic-led discussion programme.
But what I am amazed by is that no-one has yet harnessed the real passion and power in the book community right now. The kind of passion most TV producers dream of finding in contributors. The kind of passion that could be translated into a real televisual treat. And that’s the passion and proliferation of book bloggers.
Most people in publishing now recognise - and respect - the influence that bloggers have in promoting books: it’s good-old-fashioned word of mouth, except with the extensive reach and viral potential of the internet behind it. Read some blogger’s reviews, visit their websites, watch their vlogs and it doesn’t take a former TV producer to see that there’s a show just waiting to be made. A show that taps into the voracious appetite of everyday readers. A show that gives prominence to the intelligent views of ordinary book-lovers. A show that retains its objectivity by being free of ties to any single publisher. It’s an online show that’s just waiting for the likes of Waterstones or Amazon or even that great behemoth of UK book sales - Tesco - to get behind it.
Or perhaps it’ll just take a very enthusiastic group of bloggers to boldly go where no TV producer has gone before. I, for one, am just waiting to watch it.
This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post