The Art of Television

Beth Ridley speaks to television executive, producer, director and writer Tom Gutteridge, questioning TV as an art form.

Television programmes are art. Or at least they can be viewed as such. Indeed there is very little difference between these two forms of expression and entertainment.

According to Tom Gutteridge, a tycoon of the televsion world, whose most recent accomplishment is founding indie television company, Standing Stone Productions in Newcastle, the aim when developing a programme is to “find gaps in the market. You talk to the commissioners and find out what they think they need and then surprise them with something they haven’t thought of. The initial driving force behind any show is its audience. A show will never get far through the development process if it isn’t following the trend of popular culture.”

The idea for Robot Wars came to Gutteridge in 1995 when he saw a home video of some people in San Francisco playing with robots that they had constructed: “It made me laugh. And it made me laugh because of the geekiness of it, that they were so desperately serious about something that they really considered being a sport.” It was the only programme of its kind, and consequently the Robot Wars phenomenon led to shows like Scrapheap Challenge; being solely responsible for the wave of technological programmes that took over the world’s screens.

Yet, as successful as his achievement was, how can I group Gutteridge into the same category as ‘artist’? The production of television programmes is, as Gutteridge states, “a commercial creative industry”. Programmes are not made because a single producer wants to express an idea or a concept; instead a large crew work together to make something that is appropriate to its audience, following popular culture. Can we argue that artists are not doing exactly the same thing? Art, like television, is a market.

Competition is fierce and it is incredibly difficult to earn a living by painting alone. In order to sell their oeuvre, an artist has to create work that its public will appreciate.

Any successful product is created by what Gutteridge calls “zeitgeist surfing”. The ideal programme will be one that will “touch a nerve” in society. In order to sell it “you need to position it just ahead of the wave, that’s the way that you surf the zeitgeist.” He stresses that same concept can be applied to any product; can we not apply the same formula to art?

The award winning work in any art competition is given a prize because of its audience appeal. We convince ourselves that we look for creativity, genius and beauty in art, but this is a mask because we feel that is the ‘proper way’ to appreciate art. Society has an attachment to the idea of the bohemian artist, dishevelled, penniless and struggling in his attempt to reveal his heart to the world. The reality is that each artist, initially may create to express, and may continue to create to express, but at some point during their career the fundamental need to make money will factor into the subject of their work. Creativity still remains a part of art. But it is an addition. The creativity is the glazed cherry on top of the cake. It is no longer the base.

Perhaps this seems a melancholy thought, demystifing the romanticisms of art; but my purpose is to enthuse. Television is expanding rapidly; the new media promises entirely new concepts to an increasingly media savvy audience. Gutteridge stressed how every show he creates has to be made on a multi-platform level.

The television and the art gallery are not so different, except one is broadcasted to us, and the other we have to travel to see. With technological progression, how will the art object and their institutions survive?

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