I came home later than expected one evening this week and slumped down on the sofa, exhausted. Two of my three teenage children had occupied the room before my arrival, and had therefore staked a claim on the television. Their choice of viewing? Extreme Fishing with actor and UK television sleb’, Robson Greene.
To me, fishing seems like the antithesis of what might make good television. Sitting on a riverbank waiting for the bite that might never come is, to my mind, a fine way to ruin an otherwise potentially enjoyable day. The idea of watching somebody else do this is surely the televisual equivalent of me drilling holes in my head. But the programme works; having sat through nearly 60 minutes of it perhaps I now understand why. And why, conversely, wine on TV doesn’t work.
1. The presenter; Robson Greene is expert (a keen fisherman) and novice (he travels the world to take up new fishing challenges) combined. He has a down-to-earth approach, and never talks down to the audience. Perhaps this is why the UK television audience find him so endearing? How could you do this with wine? Finding a novice and expert in one would be difficult; wine drinking isn’t a sport that requires some knowledge such as fishing, and somebody who merely drinks wine – that’s most people – rather than obsessing over variety, terroir and closures doesn’t count. This is perhaps why two of the most successful ‘light entertainment’ wine programmes I can think of featured “novice-expert” pairings (Oz Clarke and James May, Jonathan Pedley MW and Keith Floyd). Is there a TV sleb’ in existence who could fill the novice-expert role? Wine also suffers from having an instant snob-feel to it. It’s easy to be “down to earth” with fishing – it’s easy to avoid too much detail, for fear of coming across as a snob, with wine.
2. The action; extreme fishing doesn’t mean sitting on a riverbank. It means diving in cages for abalone in shark infested waters, trying to catch crabs with huge pincers with just a stick and your bare hands, deep-sea fishing for octopus which must be beheaded by the presenter as soon as the cage comes on board, fishing for shark which attack as soon as they hit the boat deck, you get the idea. Suddenly, fishing isn’t so boring. How do you replicate this with wine? The excitement of the wind rustling through the leaves in the vineyard? The thrill of a vertical press in action? Worse still, watching people taste wine?
3. Comedy; there is plenty of opportunity. Those octopus cages are on a line and are arriving at the rate of 10 per minute, so mishaps and the ultimate failure of the presenter after “having a go” provides a laugh. The octopus, prior to decapitation, quite sensibly went on the offensive – “it’s grabbed me knackers“, as Robson put it. This is clearly why my teenagers watch a programme which, superficially, I thought was going to be aimed at middle-aged men who spend a lot of time thinking about rods and bait. And then there’s the eating – of octopus (raw), abalone (raw and cooked), gummy shark (cooked). Not only is the transition from just-landed fish to cooked meal interesting to watch (part of why cooking works on TV, and wine doesn’t) there is plenty of opportunity for disgusted face-pulling and near-retching. How could you do any of this with wine? Bottling line mishaps? They aren’t going to be funny. And which producer will stand by while wine’s Robson-equivalent tastes his Shiraz, retches, spits it out and exclaims “and people pay to drink this“?
4. Travel; exotic locations count for a lot here, as Robson travels the world to fish. This is one where wine does at least stand a chance – but it certainly pushes the budget up.
There may be other facets, but these are the big four I think – affable presenter with right level of knowledge + comedy + action + travel = appealing light entertainment show from which viewers will, without realising it, perhaps learn something about the subject matter. In fact this is perhaps the basic premise for many successful television shows – Michael Palin’s travelogues seem to fit a similar scheme. With wine, it doesn’t seem likely to work. How do you make wine work on television?