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TV’s young rival

13 September 2013

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IT IS unsurprising that I watched with some concern YouTube - the Future of TV? (BBC2, Wednesday of last week), as my pocket money depends on the continuance of what used to be known technically as "the gogglebox".

The presenter, Jacques Peretti, acknowledged that he was exploring foreign territory: serious television taking note of an upstart rival. Last year, for the first time, 13-to-20-year-olds spent longer watching the internet than TV. Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, at a time when it was still making huge losses, but this gamble has paid off, as each month's one billion watchers attract enormous advertising revenue.

The trick is that the company pays no production fees; anyone can download a video, and anyone with a webcam can make one. Two sins seem to be central to the exercise: vanity on the part of YouTubers, thinking that their antics should be of interest to anyone else; and idle curiosity from the "subscribers" who watch such stuff.

Vanity and curiosity are, of course, what make the world go round, and immediate censure was undermined by the amusing clips that were featured. Its champions trumpet high moral aims for the genre: it is democratic, in that anyone can produce the material; it provides a flexible vehicle for talent and creativity to emerge; and it is interactive, in that there is an immediate subscribers' response; so it builds up connectivity between people across the globe.

But this ignored the difficult area of the offensive, obscene, hate-filled downloads, and did not explore the part that it plays in reinforcing the banal triviality of life. Neither did it consider how much time it takes up: who can follow all this stuff and still have a life?

Young people were also centre-stage in a more sobering presentation: Mum and Dad Are Splitting Up (BBC2, Thursday of last week). This was a simple and effective concept: five young people shared their feelings about their parents' separation. After hearing from the children, the parents were interviewed for their side of the story; then, if all agreed, all three sat before the camera and talked.

Some of the stories were hair-raising in their level of parental self-centredness; and there was a jaw-dropping degree of surprise from the same parents, who seemed hardly to have considered that their offspring were so affected by the break-up, and still - six, nine, 20 years later - felt it so deeply.

The sensitive documentary process, using just the occasional, gentle question from an unseen presenter, offered some hope of a better future. There was at least an attempt to communicate with each other, and repair old wounds - in one instance, the only resolution was finally to convince the son that nothing would make his parents get back together.

There was, as it were, no control to this experiment, no corresponding examples of how children of an apparently stable marriage could be in despair; but, overall, the conclusion was that the children seemed far more mature than their parents, far more in touch with their feelings, and far more aware of the pain that blighted their lives, and that somehow they would have to continue to assimilate.

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