Books on Television: Good or Bad?

Recently, there was a petition circulating on-line bewailing the lack of television coverage in the UK on the subject of books. In particular, the petition called on the BBC to consider a regular television programme that would be dedicated to books and reading.

I signed the petition, but I did wonder what the point of this programme might be. ‘To promote books and reading’ is the obvious answer, but I don’t know if a television programme could actually deliver that. Worse, I fear it might do the opposite, and give the impression that reading is a minority activity that needs to be shuffled off to its own little niche in the broadcast schedules, well out of the way of normal folk.

My fear stems from the fact that, as far as I can imagine, there are only four things that a television programme about books can provide. These are:

  • Reviews of books

  • Interviews with authors

  • Readings of extracts from books

  • ‘Round-table’ discussions on literary subjects

For the life of me, I can’t think of anything else that a book programme could do beyond those four themes.

That’s fine, you might say, that’s all a book program needs—but wouldn’t a programme that consists almost exclusively of a round of reviews, interviews, readings and discussions be—let’s not beat around the bush—a bit dull? Dull in terms of being poor television, I mean. Book reviews, I believe, are better served by the written media—either print or on-line—rather than someone delivering a ‘piece to camera’. Listening to the author read his own work is great, but that can be done with better effect on the radio. So what is there in that earnest parade of talking heads praising the books they’ve read to make the non-reading public think ‘Gosh, that looks interesting. I must read more books’? Very little, as far as I can see.

Television is primarily a visual medium, but the only overtly visual aspect to a book is the cover—everything else happens in the imagination. It’s quite likely that dramatic adaptations of novels—like the current BBC production of Wolf Hall—will sell more books and get more people reading than a dedicated book programme. Not everyone’s novel can receive the big budget treatment (more’s the pity), but it is surely a step in the right direction.

I’m not against the BBC providing more programmes about books (I did sign the petition, after all) but I do wonder what good such a programme would do. Unless someone can devise the equivalent of a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for books, I fear that any book programme on television will struggle with a tiny production budget, shunted away to a graveyard slot in the schedules, and consequently watched by a tiny audience.

After all, most book lovers prefer to read books, not watch television.


Filed under Adaptation, Book Reviews, Drama, Fiction, Publishing

4 responses to “Books on Television: Good or Bad?

  1. OMG the very thought of a Strictly Come Reading – fills me with horror. I agree that books are best discussed on the radio and that is happening quite well. Mind you Richard and Judy and Oprah did do a lot for books and reading on their programmes didn’t they. I wholeheartedly agree with your final sentence.

  2. Here’s my idea. Have an hour every day with a live but blank TV screen, no music, no graphics, certainly no advertising, whose purpose is to create a period of thoughtful silence that everyone in the viewing public can use as a prompt for reading. It can be called The Reading Hour. Eventually the habit of reading will be so widespread that viewers will be calling broadcast stations and cable companies, begging for a blank, well-lighted screen.

  3. Fran Macilvey

    LOL! This is a great post, John, and the comments are funny. 😀

    We could have some fuzzy focus dramatic reconstructions….? You know, like one week they are taking a look at chic lit – cue lots of ladies with long hair and handbags; and we could have gothic horror in shadows with shrieking music and menacing knives….

    Seriously, though, it reminds me of that television programme that was on for a while called ‘Why Don’t You (Just Switch off Your TV set and do something else more interesting instead?)

    Wonderful post. xxx 🙂

  4. I used to love Jackanory, yes, kids’ stories! But if you don’t get them when people are young often you don’t get people to be readers at all. Jackanory was full of brilliant stories, and they were from all over the world. One story of an Emperor’s daughter going to be a diplomat in an enermy’s country has stayed with me for over thirty years. Wonderful. 🙂

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