'Formulaic, repetitive – and brilliant': in praise of daytime TV

Stuart Heritage
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Daytime television has long been treated as a punchline; as bad, repetitive, cheaply made TV designed exclusively for people who haven’t got anything better to do. Indeed, this reputation has only been amplified in the age of streaming. After all, when you have a near-limitless library of the best television ever made permanently on hand, why on earth would you spend an hour watching yet another tedious documentary about traffic wardens?

However, hopefully, daytime is about to get a boost. This month, Bafta announced the creation of a new awards category just for daytime television, and it is much overdue. Man cannot live on prestige drama alone. Sometimes we need warmth and familiarity, and the promise that a dead relative has placed an antique of life-changing value at the back of our cupboard. When we need this, we turn to daytime television.

Of course, the big worry about the Bafta announcement is that the category will be snaffled up by the wild attention hogs that are the daytime magazine shows. These are the loud, live, long-running daytime mainstays that burn through content at a breakneck pace. They are most commonly found on ITV. From the moment that Good Morning Britain gears up at 6am until Loose Women sputters out at 1.30pm, five days a week, viewers are subjected to a torrent of aggressively agenda-setting noise. If Piers Morgan shouts at someone, or Holly Willoughby chortles at a weak innuendo, or some of Loose Women’s nerve-shredding tension breaks out into a flash of tangible aggression, the papers cover it as actual news. These shows are the tentpoles. The sense is that, because they are onscreen thrashing around every single day, they will be the ones who get all the Baftas.

But I don’t want it to be that way. The magazine shows are the least interesting part of daytime. We don’t need to watch people scream bad opinions at each other on TV during working hours – we have Twitter for that. Besides, the real gems of the daytime schedule – the places where the form best serves the function – are to be found elsewhere.

Related: Beyond Bargain Hunt: your definitive guide to 'the wonderland' of daytime TV

Gameshows, for example. It is my firm belief that daytime television is home to the very pinnacle of the gameshow genre. To watch a big, expensive primetime gameshow is to be walloped around the head by empty spectacle, but to watch a daytime gameshow feels like being welcomed to a party by a dear old friend. Rick Edwards’ Impossible is the perfect case in point. It’s a multiple choice quiz like millions before it, but one that has been finessed to such a high sheen that it is a total pleasure to watch. The same goes for Warwick Davis’s Tenable. And Countdown, a game of such perfect construction and easy charm that removing it from the schedules counts as heresy. When Gabby Logan presented a primetime gameshow, it was the flailing stress attack that was I Love My Country. On daytime, though, she was put in charge of The Edge; an easy, low-stakes game of vaguely monetised crown green bowls. And it was brilliant. She was great at it. The Edge should have been on primetime, except that would have obliterated all of its charm.

The same goes for the lifestyle shows. At its worst, it feels as if daytime television has just three messages: a) people want to steal your stuff, b) you should totally sell all your stuff and c) you urgently need to move house. It’s a weird combination, and one that leads me to believe that the person who commissions daytime TV shows is a down-on-their-luck gambling addict. However, even these programmes serve a purpose.

More so than any other type of television, daytime encourages viewer participation. The last time I watched daytime TV with any real regularity, my mum was seriously ill. In the afternoons, when she became too tired to talk, shows such as Bargain Hunt, Flog It and Escape to the Country acted as focal points for our shared judgment. “She’ll never make a profit on that,” we would tut to each other as some bodywarmered ninny from Surrey ignored the expert advice and overspent on an impractical Georgian coffee table. Say what you like about The Sopranos, but when it comes to providing conversational fodder for terminally ill pensioners, it cannot hold a candle to David Dickinson.

This type of daytime show is meant to be formulaic. It’s meant to be repetitive. It’s meant to fade into the background. But it can also be absolutely brilliant. I hope that, when the first daytime Bafta is presented, it’s these shows that get the nod rather than their noisier counterparts.