Knut Ekval 1843-1912, The Fisherman and The Siren
(The kind of fishing programme that might get an audience)

To the Controller of BBC2.

Dear Sir,
It may have escaped your notice, but fishing has rather a large following in the UK. In fact, it is this country’s most popular participation sport, according to a 2004 report by the Environmental Agency. Apparently, some 3m people do some form of angling and collectively they spend over £3bn per year. Fishing takes place in a wide range of landscapes and the men and women who do it are interesting folk with lots of stories to tell. So, here’s my question: instead of all those cooking and dancing programmes, why don’t we have some more prime time fishing programmes? The only regular fishing programme I know on mainstream channels is Robson’s Extreme Fishing on Channel 5 which involves the presenter going to all sorts of exotic places and often facing ferocious oceans.
I know there would be a huge audience for something less, well, challenging. I asked all my friends down at the fishing club last weekend and they all said they’d tune in. So how about it, Mr Controller?

Your ever Izaac Walton
Dear Mr Walton
Thank you for your note. Unfortunately, while your 3m is an impressive number and certainly larger than the number of wine enthusiasts we have been able to uncover in the UK, I have to offer you the same answer as I gave all those pesky people who keep asking why there aren’t more wine programmes: because fishing and wine make rotten television – for anybody other than keen fishermen and wine buffs. 
You say that the landscapes will be appealing; frankly, that’s what the wine people said, and I took a good look at the available footage. The way I see it, there are three basic vineyard regions: the flat ones – Médoc, Coonawarra etc; the bumpy ones – Chianti and Beaujolais; and the sheer ones – the Rhine, Rhone and Douro. Everything else is a variant on those, and I reckon it’s the same with your rivers, I’m afraid. 
Then there’s the question of what actually happens. In our food programmes, people magically transform stuff into other stuff, often against the clock. In shows like Strictly and X Factor we see them develop their skills. Compared to that, watching people holding their rods and waiting for a fish to bite, or removing the cork from a bottle is simply not very visual. The actual catching of the fish is, I admit, a lot more interesting than watching someone pour and taste a wine, but it’s still not enough. As for your fisherfolk, I concede that they are potentially more interesting than the winemakers and merchants – at least they’re not all involved in the same trade – but frankly I need convincing that they are going to make good television. Why should the fisherfolk or the winemakers be intrinsically more worth watching than, say, a set of customs officers who, after all, have some fascinating experiences catching smugglers to share with us.
Then there’s the history. We TV folk like to work with formats that have worked somewhere. You have an extreme fishing programme that airs on a minority channel: it’s not a great start. The wine people have more of a track record than you. They’ve had lots of shots at it. In the UK, we’ve had Jancis Robinson’s very expensively produced shows, a series by Hugh Johnson, efforts by Malcolm Gluck and Matthew Jukes and lots of sequences by Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden when they were taken out of the Food & Drink studio. And then there was Oz & James  which wasn’t actually wine TV but more like a set of road movies. None of them really captured a sufficiently large audience to make us want to make them a permanent fixture. And believe me Mr Walton, when we find something that works, we milk it to death!
To be honest, even some of the best shows got the same number of viewers as the gardening show whose slot they took over. And the gardening programme cost pennies to make because we shot it in our backyard while the wine programmme involved taking crews to Austria and Australia. Of course, you’ll say that no one’s done fishing or wine programme’s properly. Nowhere on God’s earth, given the lack of success of wine and fishing TV in other countries. That’s what all you enthusiasts say. And I reply with a challenge. Do what Mrs Bieber did. Go and make some great Youtube clips and show me there’s an audience. It worked for her son Justin. Maybe it will work for you. I’ll be here waiting, but not exactly holding my breath.
Gordon Gogglebox
Controller BBC2 Television

  1. …aqnd of course, the same criticisms hold good for wine videos online. I cannot understand why people watch someone holding up a glass, and telling us what colour it is, when we can see perfectly well. Why people will watch someone swirling, sniffing and tasting (usually in silence, for it is hard to talk with a mouthful of wine). Why it it necessary or even desirable to watch someone opining about a wine in front of me, when their written words would do so much more eloquently (it's hard to talk poetically about a wine without looking a twat; easier to write that way). And why someone should opt for the linearity of a video presentation when you can dip in and out, jump about and skip from one wine to another in a written piece so much more easily.

    Yet they do…

  2. Point well made Robert. Indeed the only time I have seen wine really excite on TV was the above mentioned Oz and James first series when you actually did see James May develop and learn an enthusiasm for wine, as in the SCD analogy you make. Even shows like Monty Walden's which I expected to enthuse by going deeper into wine production did not achieve its goal.

  3. A very good piece Robert, which gets to the nub of the issue: its very difficult to make wine 'good television'. The only way is probably by going the personality\celebrity route or taking the local route but even these vehicles are constrained by the lack of visual appeal of the winemaking process to a mainstream audience.

  4. Thanks Alan, I agree re James & Oz,but it was a conceit. Once James had “learned”, there was nowhere for the show to go…

    And I agree re the Monty series which was more about the people than the kooky winemaking

  5. I agree regarding the use of celebs. I'd vote for a series in which celebs are taken – by an engaging, knowledgeable companion – to places whose foods and wines (and other drinks) they love. But they wouldn't be “wine” programmes. The thing most wine people adamantly refuse to accept is that having wine in the title is a turn-off rather than a turn-on.

  6. In defense of fishing programs, there was a successful TV programme in Oz about fly fishing.

    However to prove your point it was by well-loved comedians, involved travel and importantly had a buddy element. It also had some fishing but 100% of the screen time

  7. In defence of Fishing TV, there was a good programme a few years back in Oz called a “River somewhere”. It was an enjoyable and reasonably popular exploration of fly-fishing.

    However in support of the points you made earlier, it success was a combination of travel, scenery and importantly the on-screen camaraderie of two very popular comics.

    Fishing was the glue and important part of the program but it definitely benefited from a more synergistic delivery.

  8. I think the key point here is that it was by well loved comedians – who could presumably command an audience, whatever they did – and did not focus exclusively on fishing.

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