'It's 8am and Alan McGee is gurning'

There are more music shows on telly than ever before. That must mean we're in some kind of golden age - right? Alexis Petridis spends seven solid days glued to the box to find out

On the other end of the telephone, legendary TV producer Malcolm Gerrie is offering me an assessment of the state of British music television. "I think we're living in an amazing time," he enthuses. "There's some amazing stuff out there, as groundbreaking and exciting as it ever was." He pauses. "But it's happening on the web and on mobile phones. The most fertile and exciting stuff is on non-traditional platforms. If I wanted to see something really fresh and groundbreaking, I wouldn't look on MTV or ITV or any of those traditional broadcasters. I'd look on YouTube or any of the millions of music websites out there."

I struggle to stifle a groan. That isn't what I want to hear. I've spent the past seven days watching nothing but music television in an attempt to survey what's out there. And the word "ordeal" is not too strong to describe what I've been through. I have been exposed to the spectacularly disingenuous and irritating video for Pink's So What? - in which Pink once again shakes bourgeois morality to its very foundations through the noted insurrectionary medium of radio-friendly pop-rock - at least four times a day.

That is bad enough, but far from the worst of it. A lot of video channels have bought into the concept of Guilty Pleasures in a big way: you wouldn't believe the number of opportunities the British public is offered to enjoy Mr Mister's Broken Wings over the course of a week.

Elsewhere, I have seen endless chart shows, all of which seem to have been compiled in the most arbitrary manner imaginable. I have watched, horror-struck, Luke's Parental Advisory, an MTV Base reality show that, as the enticing description has it, follows former 2 Live Crew frontman Luke Campbell's "struggle to balance being a dad with running his adult entertainment business" - after all, nothing says "hilarity ensues" quite like the combination of children and hardcore pornography. And I have seen an "erotic" hip-hop video featuring Tim Westwood.

I've put myself through all this, and now perhaps the most famous music TV producer in the country - the man behind The Tube, The White Room and a host of other shows - seems to be suggesting I shouldn't have bothered. "For me," he concludes sadly, "the music on traditional TV is probably going through one of those pretty arid times."

Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to try to take the temperature of British music television in 2008. Music TV, like children's TV, brings out the nostalgic in people: we decry what's on offer these days and hymn a golden age of Top of the Pops, The Tube and The Old Grey Whistle Test. And yet there has never been so much music on television, and in such variety. My Sky+ programme guide shows 29 dedicated music channels, covering everything from grime to G4. Vast expanses of gospel are shown on the God-bothering stations; there are hours of videos broadcast on The Africa Channel and a generous scattering of music shows elsewhere. If you can't find anything you like among all that, it seems a fairly safe bet that you don't really like music.

Nevertheless, music television is haunted by the question of whether anybody is actually watching it. We live in a YouTube world: every video that has become well known in recent years, from Feist's 1-2-3-4 to OK Go's Grammy-winning Here It Goes Again, has achieved fame not on television, but via the internet. The viewing figures published by the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board make for sobering reading. In August, the most successful music channel was 4Music, with an average daily reach of 801,000 viewers, but that was perhaps linked to the fact it screened live coverage from Big Brother amid the videos. Most music channels struggle to get a quarter or even an eighth of that. Some just scrape an average reach in five figures.

I speak to Judd Lander, who is also something of a music business legend: he has been a TV plugger for so long that one of his anecdotes involves taking Abba to perform on the Mike Yarwood show. "I used to take an artist to TV Centre and do three shows with them, then I'd move to ITV and do a couple of shows there," he says. "I could clean up in about three or four days. Now, because there's such a host of smaller shows, hitting a smaller audience, it's like that old adage: if you can collect all the crumbs you can end up getting a loaf. But you've really got to work to make any impact through TV."

Perhaps more people would tune in if they knew exactly what was out there. As I settle down in front of the screen, I am buoyed by thoughts that my TV marathon might act as a public service, alerting grateful viewers to a treasure trove of televisual gems. But my buoyancy gets deflated pretty quickly. Navigating the far reaches of music TV occasionally delivers unexpected pleasures - not least the videos on The Africa Channel, which can be amazing: ferociously politicised hip-hop from Zambia, and berserk, funky Ugandan pop. But it can also deliver a nasty shock.

The first thing I see, at 8am, is Death Disco on Rockworld TV. This offers grainy footage from Alan McGee's London nightclub, which includes a lot of shots of the club's founder, gurning and throwing shapes at the camera while wearing a trilby. And I can tell you, there are better things for a chap with a morning head than the sight of Alan McGee gurning and throwing shapes in a trilby.

I switch over to something called O Music, which is presumably named after the disappointed sound viewers make when they discover it deals exclusively in light classical of the Il Divo variety. "When your joy is the joy of music," bellows a spiky-haired tenor, "it's the best day of the year!" There speaks a man who hasn't been confronted with Alan McGee gurning in a trilby at eight in the morning.

It's not long before I discover there are more subtle problems to contend with when you're exploring music telly's outer limits. What music TV used to be great at was creating a sense of community, of shared experience. As a kid, I watched Top of the Pops in the steadfast belief that everybody else in Britain was doing exactly the same thing. Of course, they weren't, but I wasn't the only one who thought so: one of the things that turned many of its presenters into the egotistical monsters depicted in Simon Garfield's history of Radio 1, The Nation's Favourite, was the belief they had the whole country rapt. Even when the viewing figures for music TV were comparatively paltry - and Malcolm Gerrie is quick to point out that Top of the Pops' peak of 15m viewers was an anomaly, and that "pure music TV has never got a big audience" - it carried on as if it were addressing the nation as one: The Weekend Starts Here.

But here, at the bottom end of the Sky+ programme guide, there is no point in pretending that a music programme is a mass experience. Indeed, the feeling I most frequently experience is loneliness. It first strikes at 4pm on Tuesday afternoon, when I find myself watching an early 1990s concert by Space Ritual, the band fronted by former Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner. There he is, honking his way through Silver Machine, but I struggle to pay attention, gripped as I am by the certainty that I am literally the only person in the world watching it.

The sensation becomes disconcertingly familiar over the following days. The video for the Knife's Marble House is brilliant, a hugely creepy bit of Jan Švankmajer-influenced animation, but is anyone else up at 3am on Monday to see it shown as part of MTV Dance's chillout show, The Sunset Sessions?

I even feel alone watching channels that encourage a sense of community by running viewers' text messages on screen. One evening, I flick to Channel U, famed as the televisual home of British urban music's bleeding edge. The music is suitably edgy, but the only person texting in is someone who calls himself CHOONAGE. I fancy I can sense a certain crushing desperation in his failed attempts to provoke dialogue. Did evry1 hav a gd weekend? No response. Who's guna win da Premiership? No response. Fearful that CHOONAGE is about to ask if any1 hav da number 4 da Samaritans, I head over to the terrestrial channels.

There's a commonly held belief that terrestrial TV doesn't bother with music any more, that digital has taken over - but it's not true. During my seven-day vigil, terrestrial TV shows nine and a half hours of music programming, not counting The X Factor. Most of it's on Channel 4, a fact of which the station's head of music, Neil McCallum, is justifiably proud: "Channel 4 is doing more music programming now than we've ever done. We've got more returning series this year in the Channel 4 schedule than we've ever had."

It's just that most of it is shown in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. During my week, the only bit of terrestrial music programming that happens at a reasonable hour is a video premiere of Alicia Keys and Jack White's theme to Quantum of Solace.

Perhaps it doesn't matter in a world of hard-disc recorders, but it is still testament to music's inability to pull a crowd. As Gerrie notes, music TV's traditional audience, aged 18-24, just don't sit in front of the telly any more: "My 18-year-old son - if you look at his leisure time, he sits in front of his PC. It's where he gets his music from: he's got his iTunes, his iPod, his mobile and that's basically his world. He'll only come and watch TV if there's a live football match on. If he wants to watch a video, he'll dump it down on to his iPod or phone and watch it when he wants."

And, because music television is famously expensive to make, almost all of it is either corporate-sponsored or funded by record companies. Whether that's a problem or not is a thorny question. I watch a record-company-funded Channel 4 programme about Seasick Steve. It's not going to win any awards for editorial impartiality - in fact, it's like a moving press release - but you can't argue with the electrifying live footage, which would never have been broadcast had Warner Brothers not stumped up the cash.

Wanting something untainted by the hand of the multinational corporation, I return to Channel U. Alas, it's 10pm, and Channel U has forgone urban music in favour of the FHM High Street Honeys' cover of the Divinyls' I Touch Myself. It's part of a risqué programme called Channel U XXX, which features plush US videos alongside British efforts with a Readers' Wives feel. The video for a track off Lethal Bizzle's first album features bare breasts and the rapper treated with the same special effect that made Marlon Wayans look like a dwarf in the film Little Man -plus, for some reason, Tim Westwood looking on furtively. This certainly has an effect on the libido: watching it, it's hard to imagine ever feeling sexually aroused again.

Horrified, I scramble for the remote. I've never been so pleased to see Jools Holland in my life. I welcome him, his boogie-woogie piano and his ghastly, obsequious interview technique like a cross between a long-lost friend and the emergency services. TV On the Radio come on. They sound impossibly adventurous and thrilling. I can't help thinking that if their performance was shown on prime-time TV, it would be one of those famous music television moments, when the sense of an exciting artist suddenly barging into the nation's living rooms makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

But then I remember Malcolm Gerrie explaining that music television doesn't really do that any more: "The audience has fractured, music itself has fractured into a million different genres. It's all about niche programming now, being bespoke, catering for a minority group." You have to be content with smaller thrills, but at least it's still capable of delivering them. On that note, I head to bed.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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