The state of UK videogames TV
Ginx is to launch a 24/7 videogames channel on cable and satellite TV, and although we have some reservations, we wish it every success. Sadly though, it's not enough.
A niche channel sneaking its way onto the Sky EPG is a brave stand, but we want so much more than that. We want a terrestrial TV show about games, and we want it now. We want prime time games reviews, news and play. And we want celebrities talking about games in a positive light. On the BBC.
However, to be honest, we may as well wish for gold-plated Lambretta scooters for every member of the UK population. It seems, for some reason, videogames TV has been consigned to the history books.
Gamesmaster was last aired (apart from repeats) in 1997, thirteen years ago. Games World returned for a brief flurry on Sky One in the breakfast slot in 1998, and then disappeared again. Since then, there have been several attempts at mainstream videogames TV with one tying factor, they all slinked off without much of an impact. And, seemingly, no major broadcaster wants to bring them back. But why?
Before Pocket-lint (and other tech journalistic postings) I was heavily embroiled in the mid-90s games television explosion. I co-presented on Gamesmaster and Games World, and was series producer of the latter. I helped launch The Computer Channel (which became .TV) and series produced much of the gaming output of both, including a stripped-back magazine show version of Games World and its (cheaper) sequel Game Over. And through them helped launch the presenting career of Donna Air and The IT Crowd's Matt Berry, while giving Andy Collins (now seen on The Alan Titchmarsh Show) his first headline programme.
Additionally, these shows, and others like them, brought the world David Walliams, Jason Bradbury, Jane Goldman, and Simon Amstell (who was, remarkably, a Gamesmaster contestant). And, as unbelievable as this may seem, Charlie Brooker used to commentate on Games Republic - a videogames show presented by Trevor and Simon - while he was dressed as a monk (a role I took over halfway through the series).
In short, TV lapped up this new-fangled gaming thing like it was cocaine-dusted candy from the Gods. However, the moment the stations got bored, it was dropped faster than an X-Factor runner-up from their record label. And the main networks have had no desire to dabble with videogaming since.
Having worked on Bleeding Thumbs, the 1999-2000 show that The Beeb hoped would emulate Robot Wars' success, I have first hand experience of seeing the mood rapidly change within broadcasting. After two pilot episodes, hosted by Dermot O'Leary and Kate Thornton, and then Terry Alderton and Kate Thornton, the commissioning editor de-commissioned the show (something rarely done when a lot of money is at stake). It was claimed that, "people want to play games, not watch them".
This was also reiterated at meetings I had with high ranking editors at other stations in the early 2000s. And it is, in one word, "poppycock"... With the emphasis being on the latter half.
It's utter nonsense. Will people not watch movie review shows because they would rather watch movies instead? Do people not watch The Gadget Show because they're intently using their iPhone 4s and iPads? And do people not watch Top Gear because they're out driving the cars themselves? No. They watch these shows because they are entertaining. And, in the case of Top Gear, there are many who don't even care about the subject matter.
In Gamesmaster's case too, there was a healthy following that, thanks to its challenge-based format, regular celebrity guests, and timeslot (often preceding Hollyoaks), didn't even care much for games. They found the show entertaining enough that the subject matter was no barrier. It regularly had audience figures in the millions - more than Big Brother has managed for years. Indeed, there were many then that "want to watch games, not play them".
And that was a time when gaming was a niche pastime.
Now, as Ofcom has recently revealed, gaming has never been so mainstream. It has overtaken both movies and music when it comes to online activities and downloading content. It is a mutli-billion pound industry that is continually growing. Its star titles are reported on all forms of mainstream press, broadcast and otherwise, and a big game will regularly sell over a million units in days - and that's at £40-50 a pop.
Everybody has heard about Modern Warfare 2 - although not always for the right reasons.
And that is the real issue.
When games appear on terrestrial TV today, it is often to daemonise them, to blame them for a multitude of evils. They have become a convenient scapegoat for the ills of society. And it is, perhaps, the fear of hypocrisy that prevents TV channels from, on one hand, claiming that the Taliban's presence in Medal of Honor is a show of disrespect to the troops in the Middle East, and then broadcasting a glowing review of the very same game 30 minutes later.
That is a more likely barrier than "people want to play games, not watch them". But, sadly, not one that is as easy to overcome.
So, we need to get behind Ginx, and the thousands of online games video broadcasters, such as the excellent Vertical Slice, because they are likely to be the only shows we, the games fans and players, will get for some time to come. Let us build a new community away from television. Let's stop hoping that Gamesmaster will come back and support the little guy.
And because of which, maybe their audience figures will rise so much that the major terrestrial channels will start sniffing around again. Then, my friends, we can tell them to shove it!
What do you think? Is Rik just off his rocker? Are there games shows he didn't mention that deserve a shout out? Let us know in the comments below...