Knut Ekval 1843-1912, The Fisherman and The Siren
(The kind of fishing programme that might get an audience)
To the Controller of BBC2.
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.
Controller BBC2 Television