Monday, 16 June 2008

Schedule B: In Memorium

As the ticking of our clock inexorably inches us closer to the point where our Sky subscription lapses for the first time in ten years (since Sky Digital was launched, in fact*), we feel the time is right to salute some of the fallen heroes (channels) that have graced the platform in that time. In the first of what could possibly be an ongoing series, we prepare to take a journey into the dusty old EPG listings of the past, and spew forth our memories. As best we can.

(*It's taken us this long to realise "hang on, we're paying nearly fifty quid a month for this! How come everything in our Sky+ planner is from channels that are on Freeview?")

Friendly TV

Ah, Friendly TV. Quite possibly one of the most inept television channels ever to grace the Astra satellite. It started out with the aim of being "the first live play-along entertainment channel" in May 2003, hoping to compensate for the lack of advertising revenue by getting lots of viewers to call in for a bit of an old natter. At premium rates. Oh, and because it was broadcast live, only the presenter could hear the callers, meaning they would repeat everything the callers says. The end result being much like a painfully drawn out episode of The Sooty Show, only not as entertaining as that sounds.

The microbudgets being lavished on the channel led to a number of entertaining cockups. Commercial breaks would be tranmitted, only with the sound feed from the studio accidentally played out on top of the pictures. This led to the channel's most notorious moment in May 2003. The hosts Paul Lavers and Karen Witchalls spent one morning's News Hound asking the viewers to text their brains out about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, before pausing for a commercial break. During the break, the presenters' microphones were accidentally left on, meaning the chat between Lavers and Witchalls could be heard throughout the portion of the nation tuned to Sky channel 268. When the chat turned to the sexuality of Cruise and Kidman, with Lavers excellently using the phrase "Betty Both", a skittish Friendly was forced to issue a grovelling apology, and to seriously reconsider the policy of letting anyone who fancies it having a go in the control room. Incidentally, all this proved to be endlessly amusing to Victor Lewis-Smith, who wrote about the affair in one of his Mirror columns. Quite infuriatingly, that column hasn't been picked up by the internet archive.

With calls not flooding in as frequently as had been hoped, most of the broadcast hours were devoted to Brainbox, an interactive call-in quiz running on a PC. And how could we know it was running on a PC? Because quite often, at some point during the night the PC would crash, meaning all that would be transmitted for hours on end was a frozen Brainbox screen, obscured by a Windows error message. And if no-one from the channel was watching it to notice, why on earth would anyone else?


After a fashion, most of the daytime hours were split between Brainbox and broadcast time outsourced to other channels considering a full launch on Sky, such as NASA TV and The Wrestling Channel. The live programmes that were left on Friendly weren't improving, however. One notable example being Girl Talk. A studio was filled with several female Friendly presenters along with a few bottles of wine, all hoping for a good old girly goss-fest with their fellow lady viewers. What generally happened instead is that someone like Anon from Southend would text in with "MICHELLE CAN U SHOW ME UR FEET" or something similar a dozen times a night, much to the perpetual annoyance of the presenters (and to the amusement of anyone else stumbling across the channel on their way to see what's on FX). This went on for several weeks, until the show was discreetly canned, with Charlie Brooker noting in his Screen Burn column one week that "if you needed both hands to send text messages, the channel would fold overnight."

"u tired u been runnin tru my mind alday.akira84"

In it's place was a slightly re-jigged version of Girl Talk, designed expressly for the likes of Anon from Southend. The name of this show? Why, Babecast, of course. With hardly anyone phoning in to the regular shows, save for Charlie Brooker trying to wind up the presenters for the aforementioned Screen Burn column*, Babecast slowly spread throughout the night time schedule like a virus with big tits.

(*It doesn't seem to be online, but see p287 of the first Screen Burn book, where he relates the tale of getting together with some chums, and texting into Friendly's lunchtime show with the news that the Pope had died - he hadn't, a request for the presenter's thoughts about On Golden Pond, and a suicide note.)

"Give us a flip with your flip-flop! Spence"

Eventually, Friendly was no more, with it renamed BabecastTV, and duly plonked into the onanist's haven of the adult section. The channel can perhaps best be summed up by the following section from The Guardian, dated February 2004.
Ofcom today also upheld a complaint against digital channel Friendly TV, which, due a technical failure, broadcast a still image of a topless woman from late night show Babecast for five hours the following morning.

Ah, Friendly TV. We hardly knew ye.

(There's more information - including screen grabs - about Friendly TV over at the splendid TV & Radio Bits website.)


Positioned as Friendly TV's slightly trendier brother, it was clear it wanted to avoid the problems which beset the no-budget pioneer. Things got off to a slightly shaky start, when one of Sky's regular channel reshuffles forced it to change it's moniker to Nation217 not long after launch. Boh.

The channel is perhaps best remembered for being the first home to FlipsideTV, which is worthy of a lengthy article in itself. FlipsideTV was an interesting live format devised by Richard "Cocaine" Bacon, James "Loaded" Brown and Lord "Thatcher" Bell which saw three celebrity guests channel hopping through the contents of three Sky Digital boxes, and commenting on what they've found, or indeed anything else that took their fancy. In between the channel traversing, the host would read out viewer comments and take calls for the daily competition, with top prizes such as a Nokia N-Gage ("including PlayStation quality graphics", as the host would remind viewers every ten minutes) up for grabs.

The programme went out each weeknight, with a rota of presenters on host duty. Most often Richard Bacon himself would hold sway, sometimes Iain Lee would take the controls, and occasionally guest hosts would have a go, with Trevor and Simon being a notable example (an event which saw the regular FlipsideTV theme replaced with that of Going Live). One of the regular hosts was chosen after being particularly well-received as a regular guest, and eventually went on to be in charge of affairs more often than Bacon himself. The name of this young buck, plucked from obscurity? Justin Lee Collins. Now, whatever you might think of the 2008 model Collins (our guess is it'll be more likely to involve the word "twat" than the word "hilarious"), his energy and enthusiasm helped keep the show bouncing along at a nice pace, with him being well suited to a live and unscripted format.

All this made for a surprisingly entertaining ninety (yes, ninety) minutes, with the programme even nabbing it's very own sponsorship deal, a thing relatively unheard of for Vauxhall Conference-level channels such as Nation277. It certainly didn't hurt that the show was attracting guests like Matt Lucas, Boris Johnson (fresh from his appearances on HIGNFY), Charlie Higson and Victoria Silvstedt. The show was soon promoted up the digital pecking order, with it given a one week run on late night Channel Four in August 2004, followed by a two month stint in an earlier slot on Paramount Comedy. Despite some oh-so-shocking comments about Islam made by rent-a-contentious-gobshite Keith Allen in the first Channel Four outing, it attracted a higher audience than the programme scheduled on ITV1 at the same time. It seemed, minor controversy aside, FlipsideTV would go on to be a mainstay in the schedules. Entertaining. Cost effective. Popular.

And there's the oddest thing. Since the last of the broadcasts on Paramount, the show seemed to have disappeared without a trace. It wasn't picked up for a longer run by Paramount, while Channel Four seem to have preferred the broadly similar (if less TV-centric) FAQ U for their fix of Famous People On Sofas Talking About Stuff. By this point it was too big to return to Nation217, but there weren't any other channels that would have provided a suitable home, with the possible exception of Bravo. Where it went, nobody knows. Presumably those involved got caught up in other projects, leaving poor old FlipsideTV to spend all of its time standing in a 24 hour Tesco Extra, sitting in the surround sound demo set-up, complaining about Japanese game shows on Challenge.

Still, while we no longer have FlipsideTV, we do still have Justin Lee Collins. Hmm. Kind of lose-lose, isn't it, really.

The legacy of Nation277/217 didn't end with floppy haired funster Collins, however. In learning much the same lesson that Friendly TV had, merely offering an interactive text forum for your viewers wasn't the path to prosperity that it could have been. By 2005, the channel had retooled, and became known as Game Nation 217 (along with spin off channel Quiz Nation, which mainly simulcasted the same output). The main draw was that you could phone in and win up to (i.e. a lot less than) £30,000 for just answering a simple question. And all for just a £1.50 phone call! What could possibly go... ah.


6 .:

Simon said...

Are you doing The Advert Channel?

Mark X said...

Probably not, as I'd never really watched it for any length of time. Every time I tried to catch it, teleshopping always seemed to be on.

paul twist said...

I recently noticed that everything I watch bar Boston Legal and America Dad is on Freeview too. Hmm.

Flipside was genuinely great. Did you see the episode with Mark E Smith as a guest? Broadcast before 9pm? Oh dear...

Mark X said...

Sadly, I didn't see the episode of Flipside with Mark E Smith. Now I'm a bit disappointed I missed it. Most of the ones I'd caught had guests of Roland Rivron level, which is neither good nor bad, really.

One reason why Flipside might have had a relatively short shelf-life is the timeslot. Nation were quite lucky they had the option of shifting it around the schedule, because given (a) the same timeslot every day, (b) the premise of people commentating about what's on telly, and (c) the rigidly stripped-and-stranded nature of digital TV, much the same shows were on during each episode of Flipside. There are only so many lame gags Iain Lee could make about Steve Irwin goading alligators, I suppose. And not too many of those would be side splitting.

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