What happened to live music on TV?

Mark Cooper, Head of Music Entertainment at the BBC, says he often get asked about Top of the Pops. Will he bring back the weekly series? Why did he pull it? Read his comment on music programming.

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 24 Dec 2012
  • min read
As Head of Music Entertainment at the BBC I often get asked about that great British music institution, Top of the Pops. Will we bring back the weekly series? Why did we pull it? People get really nostalgic about the programme - me included, I love it. But the circumstances that created Top of the Tops have changed forever. People who don’t think that are being sentimental. We’ve all grown up and we’ve all changed. You’d love Top of the Pops to exist and so would I, but would you tune in every week? When 18 million people watched it in the 70s it was the only game in town and television was everything. But it’s such a different world now.

By the end of its Friday evening run on BBC1, Top of the Pops was attracting two and a half million viewers. The One Show, which is now in that slot, gets five million. The BBC has a duty beyond viewing figures to offer music programming and it is proud to do that, but on BBC1 your job is to appeal to mainstream Britain.

It’s certainly a tough environment for performance-based music programming these days, but I think that’s always been the case. What has changed is the media landscape; when I started there was a very healthy kids TV and Saturday morning television culture. But music programming and Saturday kids TV in the old sense has died. That’s not to say that British broadcasters don’t make some great music programmes. The X Factor is a hugely powerful show and there are some great documentaries and Audience Withs on ITV.

People have a very forced nostalgia about music programming and believe there used to be loads of it – but there never was. For instance, there hasn’t really been much dedicated live music on the BBC since the end of The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1987. The Late Show was probably the one place that did it for a long time. Meanwhile Channel 4 tried a lot of music shows after The Tube ended, including Wired, Naked City, Big World Café and an awful lot more. None have stuck in the way The Tube did. I think performance-based music shows were imperilled then and imperilled now. They are a niche in broadcasting terms.

It’s clear that the public is just as engaged with music as it ever was but I’m not so sure TV is the platform that people engage with it on. I think the way we engage with music as a nation has changed and we need to acknowledge that and keep innovating. There has been a vast proliferation of choice. The whole rise of music videos on YouTube means you can see anything you want from around the world whenever you want. Appointment-to-view music programming is becoming less popular, so it’s harder to get people to sit down at a certain moment to watch a music show.

Perversely, there are more hours dedicated to music programming on TV now than in 1990 when I first worked on Channel 4’s Wired programme. If you just take the BBC festival coverage, between the terrestrial hours dedicated to that, the Red Button content and online coverage, there’s a huge amount of programming – more than there was in The Old Grey Whistle Test years.

But underneath it all, music programming should be the same as any other programming - it’s about human stories. Generally, our task at the BBC is to find the human aspect to music stories on terrestrial and digital television and to encourage an audience that feels compelled to them. It’s no different from someone making a history or science programme.

The area in which the BBC has really grown recently is in documentaries and themed nights on BBC4, which have been incredibly successful. Audiences love stories about bands and want to hear from people who go on a journey together. All our Britannia films on BBC4 and programmes on BBC2 such as I’m in a Boy Band or I’m in a Rock n’ Roll Band concentrate on these journeys. This type of programming is really important to British cultural life and to songwriters and musicians alike. Creators take their culture really seriously, and rightly so. They’ve helped shaped people’s perceptions of this country and there’s huge emotional warmth for what they do.

Mark Cooper is Creative Head of BBC Music Entertainment, the department responsible for much of the corporation’s popular music coverage. His signature strand is Later… With Jools Holland, which he conceived with Jools Holland and director Janet Fraser Crook in 1992. Mark also instigated the BBC’s TV festival coverage, bringing Glastonbury to the small screen in 1997. This has now been extended to cover many of the major UK festivals.

Mark and his department oversee live sessions for BBC Four, BBC1 and Red Button, and produce Top of the Pops 2 and Top of the Pops Christmas edition. They have also produced the long-running Britannia music series.