Happy TV by Chris Green
The position on the Programme Development team at Happy TV, had not been widely advertised so I felt fortunate that I subscribed to Occult magazine, as it had been one of a very few that had carried the ad. What an opportunity, I thought, better by far than writing dull copy for a free paper.
The ad had specified that the ideal candidate would have some previous experience. Although I had no experience of television scheduling, I had had plenty of experience of reading Radio Times, and thinking at any given time that ‘there’s nothing on but sport, game shows, programmes about people buying antiques or having talent.’ I was an old hand at timeshifting through a DVR in order to give myself something palatable to watch of a Tuesday or Wednesday, or even Saturday evening. With such a sad life, I for one felt I needed Happy TV.
According to the ad, Happy TV was going to provide a revolutionary viewing experience. With no news broadcasts, no sport, no soaps, no violent films, no survival or voting off shows, and quite categorically no lifestyle programmes that would promote avarice or revulsion, the accent of Happy TV was to be on promoting well-being. Anyone watching Happy TV at any time of the day would feel lifted.
Despite my lack of a background in TV, I was short-listed and asked to prepare a short presentation, not more than forty five minutes, of a sample week’s TV listings for the interview. I began to compile a list of the type of programmes that I enjoyed watching, feeling that it might provide a close match for a typical projected day’s viewing on the new station. The match was slight. I had to revise this several times to take out news broadcasts, no sport, no soaps, no violent films, no survival or voting off shows, and lifestyle programmes that would promote avarice or revulsion. It seemed that despite my timeshifting efforts I myself had a broad-brush approach to viewing.
Even a genre like travel programmes presented complications as to what might be appropriate for the new channel. For example, it could be argued that most travel programmes promoted avarice. Perhaps it was the manner in which they were presented but many travel programmes and foreign lifestyle programmes were aimed at selling expensive holidays. However a certain type of travelogue, like Simon Reeve’s journeys, seemed to transcend this. There was indeed a fine line. An examination of TV archives on sadbastard.co.uk showed that there were relatively few transcendent travelogues but many that seemed designed to provoke envy.
The difficulty was echoed in other genres. Nature programmes were frequently about species threatened with extinction. Sitcoms concentrated on their characters as victims. Historical documentaries focused on upheaval or the exposure of heroes. Very little televisual output was intended to promote happiness or contentment. My early attempts at a list were therefore short. There were only so many art, music or gardening programmes you could fit into a day’s schedule. And a cautious approach to art might be needed bearing in mind much of the subject matter. Even allowing for series on Yoga, Feng Shui and Aromatherapy and a revived and extended Heaven and Earth Show, large gaps might remain. My forty five minute presentation I realised was, like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, something that could not be ready in forty five minutes.
After the retrieval of a large pile of Radio Times from the loft, several visits to couchpotato.com, a cover to cover reading of Everything You Wanted to Know about, Tao, Zen and Alternative Therapies, and considerable refining of my ideas over a 48-hour period I finally arrived at a week’s schedule that I felt would uplift the spirit and cause no offence. I transferred it on to PowerPoint and I had brought the CD with me to the interview.
At Happy House I was offered camomile tea by a receptionist called Gaia, and asked to wait in a blue room with a New Age CD of whale-song playing in the background. Marginal aquatic plants behind glass panels were much in evidence. An installation of clouds scudding across the sky was suspended (presumably) from the ceiling. After a while, just as the whales seemed to be joining in a chorus, I was greeted by an ageing hippy in an oversized sweatshirt that read NO-ONE I THINK IS IN MY TREE. He had a lazy gait, made more casual by his long white shorts and loafers. He was wearing multicoloured glasses, a cluster of gold earrings and had a receding hairline. He introduced himself as River.
‘Interesting creatures, dolphins,’ said River by way of an ice breaker. ‘They have a universal appeal, that symbolises freedom, joy, grace and serenity, uplifting the spirits of many people all around the world.’
And I had thought they were fish. I did not draw attention to my mammalian misapprehension. We were by now in a green room where River introduced me to the other two on the interview panel, Anais and Marcel. Anais’s glasses were more subdued than River’s but Marcel’s less so. Marcel’s glasses screamed and shouted and jumped up and down. Whereas everything about Anais suggested poise, proportion and balance, nothing about Marcel hinted at of any such qualities. He seemed awkward, edgy and fidgety, a bundle of nervous energy.
We sat down, Gaia came in with some echinacea and ginseng tea, and River began to explain how Happy TV had come about. Although only a pilot project, with it had to be said a fairly limited budget for a TV company, Happy TV was based upon research by Dr. Ylang Ylang, the eminent psychiatrist. Dr. Ylang’s research had shown that there was a direct correlation between violence on television and aggression and violence in society. Other studies over the years had hinted that this might be so, but Dr. Ylang’s was more emphatic in its conclusions. The research had involved taking twenty random individuals off the street, confining them in a secure environment in a secret location and subjecting them to commercial television sixteen hours a day for six weeks, then releasing them. Within three months sixteen of them were in custody having committed violent offences. Another had committed suicide during an episode of Celebrity Russian Roulette. Another had joined the army. Dr. Ylang had not concluded categorically that actual violent acts on the screen had been the only causal factor, (high exposure to adverts or historical documentaries may have played a part), but the result was statistically significant. I did not mention my concerns that there might have been human rights violations in the experiment, or air the reservations that were building up inside me that the research method may have been flawed, as I did want to work for the station. Anais added at this stage that further research was in progress, in which twenty random individuals taken off the street were being subjected to TV adverts sixteen hours a day in a secret location, to see if there might be a causal link between this and dishonesty. She expected that the findings would show high incidences of fraud and shoplifting by the participants.
After Gaia had brought in a tray of jasmine tea, River asked me to start my PowerPoint presentation.
On Monday morning, in fact every morning at 7am, I had scheduled Sunrise which would feature spectacular sunrises from round the world, with appropriate ambient music. This would be followed by Tai Chi at 7.20. I had set up the presentation to leave each slide on the screen for a few seconds to allow me to talk over them. Tai Chi would be followed by Healthy Breakfast, a programme to show that muesli need not be dull. The traditional 8 o’clock news slot I had filled with Morning Concert, which could feature a different style of music each day throughout the week. My two-hour special on Bees at 9.30 met with approval, both River and Marcel removing their glasses and nodding appreciatively. The Japanese Garden Explained in the 11.30 slot also went down well.
‘Perhaps it could be expanded week by into an overall Japanese theme,’ suggested Anais. ‘We could have The Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained‘
‘We would need to avoid Japanese Environmental Policy Explained,’ sniggered Marcel.
‘And The Japanese Game Show Explained,’ I added, wittily I thought, although the deadpan expressions around me suggested that I was not expected to make the jokes.
The World of Crystals in the traditional lunchtime news slot was a hit among the team and interest was registered for A Study of the Colour Yellow for early afternoon viewing. River suggested excitedly and in great detail the soundtrack of New Age music that could be used to accompany this. The afternoon continued with Great Paintings and The Cottage Garden, safe subjects, before Laughter and the Smile at 6.30, this followed by Tree of the Day at 8.15, Sunset to compliment Sunrise at 8.30 and feature spectacular sunsets from around the world, and after a concert at 9, The Orgasm at 10.
We took a short break and Gaia refreshed us with some peppermint tea. There was no doubt about it. Monday’s schedule had gone down well, Marcel describing it as ‘sheer genius’ It appeared I had got the job.
Happy TV was an overnight success. Viewers, tired with the formats of more conventional television turned to in their droves. Within a year, Sunrise was attracting audiences of 4 million, more that any other breakfast programme, and Sunset 6 million, and a series on Buddha going head to head with Coronation Street and Eastenders was the number one programme two weeks running. BBC, Sky and the ITV networks were all beginning to feature new age shows and other programmes designed to promote happiness or well-being to try to steal viewers back from Happy. New research showed that society was becoming a happier place. An experiment taking twenty random inmates from a top security prison and exposing them to Happy TV sixteen hours a day for six weeks and then releasing them back into society had proved a resounding success. None had re-offended. Four had become Buddhists, and two more Druids. Others had volunteered for community projects.
Happy itself was also expanding. Happy 2 had just started broadcasting, this aiming to provide a more specialist diet of life affirming programmes. Rapid promotion based on my considerable achievements at Happy had put me in charge of Programme Development for the second channel. I relished the opportunity. I had ideas.
I commissioned series on Butterflies, Daffodils, Fig Trees, Mandalas, The History of the Smiley Face, Smallholdings, Transcendental Meditation, Photographs of Pigs, Folksong, Heaths and Meadows, and through the night Live Moonwatch.
One of the early successes in the early months of Happy 2 was a series on Minimalism. Every week at 7pm on a Saturday evening over 12 million people tuned in. Even Happy 1 had not achieved these figures. Using the premise that less is the new more I made the schedules even more radical. Sunday’s viewing now consisted of the sun – all day. The sun rose on the left hand side of the screen in the morning, reached the top of the screen at lunchtime and set on the right hand side of the screen in the evening, accompanied by a suitably minimal soundtrack. And incredibly millions watched. Sales of 72 inch wide-screen plasma TVs rocketed. Sunday football matches were cancelled and garden centres and DIY superstores reported a huge dip in sales, roads became less congested and families reunited round the hearth.
Given the success of earlier experimental research the government passed legislation whereby all prisoners were subjected to Happy TV (Happy 1 for less violent offenders and Happy 2 for murderers and rapists) for sixteen hours a day for six weeks. This produced remarkable results in rehabilitation. In addition through the positive influence of Happy TV on peoples lives, crime rates dropped dramatically. Prisons began to empty and the police were freed up to help old ladies across the road and teach young children how to ride their bicycles. Dr. Ylang’s reputation was in the stratosphere. His ground-breaking social engineering saw him nominated for Nobel Prizes in two categories, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and The Nobel Prize for Peace.
Where did it all go wrong? Why did people stop tuning in to Happy? I don’t necessarily think that using the Rothko painting as a test card all day on Wednesdays and Thursdays was the turning point, although Marcel argues that the drop in viewers of Happy 1 who used a Matisse testcard was smaller. Scheduling The Stars at Night on a Saturday afternoon may have been a mistake, but there again, The Sun on Sunday had been so popular.
It would be too easy to blame the product life cycle. Briefly the product life cycle posits that after a period of development the product is introduced or launched into the market; it gains more and more customers as it grows; eventually the market stabilises and the product becomes mature; then after a period of time the product is overtaken by development, it goes into decline and is eventually withdrawn. While this did describe what had happened, it seemed altogether too simplistic an explanation.
But go wrong it did. One month Happy TV was watched by almost everyone in the country at some time of the week or other, and three months later the viewers for both channels numbered several thousand.
One moment I was picking up a string of awards for The Sun on Sunday, and here I was the next having sleepless nights about my future in television, or perhaps my future, period. If there were one explanation for the dramatic decline of Happy TV, it seemed it was that the public just decided they didn’t want to be happy any longer. As The Guardian psychological correspondent, Ramdutt Jorawar, put it, following the Watford Riots, ‘people needed tension in their lives.’ Where is Dr. Ylang Now? asked the Daily Mail in its leader. Hang Ylang, screamed the Daily Star headline.
An extraordinary meeting of the creative directors of Happy was called to try to salvage the situation. Complacency had been a characteristic at Happy recently so this was the first time that we had met in months.
Because of the need for energetic thinking, The Red Room was chosen. It was blessed by a pagan priest and feng shuied ahead of the meeting, as had become standard practice at Happy. What made this different was that it was make or break. The very essence of Happy needed to be redefined. Although one tries to hang on to certainty in the end, change is the only certainty.
We took our places at the round table for what was to be a brainstorming session. Doreen brought in a tray of tequila slammers. (Gaia had left to work for the BBC.)
Ideas came thick and fast. River wrote these down on a yellow whiteboard.
‘Live Celebrity Body Piercing’
‘Paraplegic Sex Olympics’
‘Top 50 Formula One Accidents’
‘Live Mayhem in London’
‘Live War from wherever it is happening’
I began having difficulty with the degree of the turnaround.
I was unsure that I wanted to be a part of this any more.
‘How to Hijack a Jet’
‘Nude Mud Wrestling’
‘Celebrity Nude Mud Wrestling’
‘Celebrity Russian Roulette, of course’
‘A season of snuff movies’
This was too big a departure to me. This wasn’t The National Enquirer. ‘You’re a bunch of sickos,’ I yelled.
‘Not much of a title,’ said River.
‘What about our principles?’ I added.
‘What about our jobs?’ said Marcel, hitting the nail on the head, exactly.
The position on the Refuse Disposal team of Hackney Borough Council had not been widely advertised, so I felt unfortunate that I was in the Job centre having my six-monthly Benefits Review, when an over-zealous administrator sent me for it.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved