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It’s time for the BBC to revive one of its biggest brands

24 Jun 2015  |  Richard Marks 
It’s time for the BBC to revive one of its biggest brands

Forget the TFI Friday Revival, says Richard Marks of Research the Media. The one show we should be bringing back from the dead is Top Of The Pops - and here's why.

So TFI Friday is back. Following the ratings success of the one off revival, eight more episodes have been commissioned and, yes, they will be hosted by Chris Evans himself. That's somewhat surprising given that the final sections of the recent TFI special - involving Lewis Hamilton, Clarkson and Chris Evans' mum on a mobility scooter - actually turned into a foreshadowing of the subsequent announcement that Chris Evans had accepted the Top Gear gig.

There has been some speculation about alternative hosts for a revived TFI. My view is that Channel 4 should have let it lie. The event provided a lovely 'closure' for the show, but TFI is as 90s as Loaded Magazine, Sleeper and Tony Blair. Sadly Cool Britannia has mutated into Austerity Britain. Nowadays we have YouTube for 'Freak or Unique', Jools Holland for live music and Graham Norton for cheeky celebrity chat.

However, I would argue that one show desperately does need to be revived for a new generation: Top Of The Pops. I can almost feel the inevitable waft of cynicism from the Twitterati as I type these words, but bear me out on this.

So, summon up the chart rundown music of your choice (Whole Lotta Love by Led Zep, or latterly White Pearl by Midge Ure & Phil Lynnot) and allow me to present my Top Five countdown of reasons why TOTP should now return on a permanently weekly basis, not just in a lobotomised form over Christmas Day lunch.

Down to number 5. Pop music didn't kill off Top Of The Pops, it was record company marketing departments that gradually strangled the goose that laid their golden eggs.

There's a story for TOTP to tell now. The charts are once again - for good or bad - a popularity contest."

Around the turn of the millennium, all continuity in the weekly Top 40 fell apart as the record companies, desperate to have their single chart as high as possible, would often release singles for radio airplay a full two months before their release in shops.

This meant the singles charted high, but this gaming of the system was a killer for Top Of The Pops. Either they were left previewing tracks you couldn't actually buy, or waited till they belatedly charted.

At that point most singles sold nearly all their copies in the first week, resulting in a chart trajectory shorter than a vertigo sufferer in a lift at the Shard. This reached its apogee in 2000 which saw no less than 43 separate number ones. So Top Of The Pops had no narrative to tell: songs just went straight to the top 10 and then disappeared the following week. Barely enough time for your parents to get annoyed about them.

However, the Internet has changed all that.

Straight in at Number 4. The move to digital distribution has led to far greater stability in the charts, with less opportunity to manipulate a song's availability. This became apparent once downloads were counted, and the recent inclusion of streaming has further underpinned this stability.

Songs now hang around the chart for similar amounts of time to when TOTP was in its early 80s heyday. Indeed, at an extreme, Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud took 19 weeks to reach the top spot this year and has been in the charts for over a year - the first song ever to do this.

So the charts are now once again a representation of what people actually like at the moment as opposed to record company release and deletion tactics. There's a story for TOTP to tell now. The charts are once again - for good or bad - a popularity contest.

Steady at Number 3. Don't fall for the baby boomer propaganda that chart music is crap compared to the Golden Era of the 70s. A lot of chart music has always been crap. That is the whole point of popular music - it is popular and not just what the NME wants us to listen to. And popular is what television as a medium has always done best.

So yes, TOTP in the late 70s gave us Elvis Costello, The Skids, the Specials, Dexys and Kate Bush, which tend to be lovingly edited together into highlights reels. However, watch an unedited TOTP from that era on BBC 4 and you will see The Dooleys, Black Lace, the Baron Knights and Buck Fizz just as regularly as Ian Dury and Blondie.

We are told that pop music is dying in the digital era. However, just like the 'death of television' myth often discussed in these pages, it is just that - a myth."

We are told that pop music is dying in the digital era. However, just like the 'death of television' myth often discussed in these pages, it is just that - a myth.

Pop music now has an incredibly long tail of niche content, instantly accessible, but just like TV, the niche coexists with the mass market. Leaving my own personal tastes to one side, the likes of Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Adele and Ellie Goulding shift millions of 'units' (Taylor Swift can even tell Apple where to go). So popular mainstream acts with wide appeal would ensure that a new TOTP was more than just a succession of Belgian DJs pogoing behind a mix desk.

Up to Number 2. Top Of The Pops is a family show. If it is going to be revived it needs to be as a half hour weekday evening primetime show: just studio or exclusive performances and then the all important countdown to number one. No attempts to 'trendify' the format with interviews or previews. That will automatically date it.

After all, there is a precedent. TOTP is an incredibly strong brand but it's currently in a similar state to Doctor Who pre-2005 relaunch - much loved, but a bit of a nostalgic joke and surely not relevant to the kids? When new 'Who' returned in triumph it almost single-handedly revived the idea of families watching drama together. Done correctly, TOTP could do the same for music television.

Certainly for my generation, the whole point of watching TOTP was enjoying our parents admiring the lovely voice of 'that girl from Culture Club' or the moment the penny dropped that Relax wasn't about armchairs. TOTP was - and can be again - a shared weekly family 'Gogglebox' experience like X-Factor or the Eurovision Song Contest, both of which underline our high tolerance for TV cheese.

Straight in at Number 1. The timing is right. The vibrancy and immediacy of TOTP in the 1980s was undermined by the move of the chart announcement to Sunday evenings, leaving four days till TOTP on Thursday by which point the chart was old hat for anyone who cared.

However, from next month, as part of a global 'standardisation', the weekly Top 40 will now be announced at tea time on Friday. A mid-evening BBC 1 Friday chart show in which the charts were hot off the presses would be the very epitome of appointment viewing.

Industry midweek placings would be enough of an indication to book the acts and Dermott O'Leary - well versed in making dramatic announcements - has conveniently just left the X-Factor.

So BBC, worthy (farm) coverage of Glastonbury is fine, BBC 4 documentaries about Joy Division are great; but it's time to bring pop music in all its tacky splendour back to a primetime mass audience.

In the meantime I'll leave you with my earliest Top Of The Pops memory.

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Animal, Drummer, The Muppets on 15 Jul 2015
“Aaaghh - yeeaaaahhh!! Beautifully crafted argument Richard, enjoyed it. Grraawaaa!”
Sid, Research bloke, Dentsu Aegis on 24 Jun 2015
“Hear hear!”

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11 Dec 2019 

Data from Mediatel Connected
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