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Trickle up

There’s a phenomenon in media studies called trickle up, the idea that cultural themes, ideas, creativity, start on a smaller scale and then get adopted by larger and more prominent media outlets and then become mainstream. The tendency possibly happens more nowadays due to more people getting into being creative and sharing their outputs globally. Advertising agencies look at what DIY animators are doing and think “that looks rather good” and copy it, or better yet employ the animators in their campaigns, or film companies see character designs from cartoonists and rip them off, or blogs become well-known and get turned into novels and then films. It’s an important concept I think, because so much of our cultural assumptions are that it happens the other way round, media create ideas, which then become copied by the masses. Trickle up is far more common than trickle down as far as I can see.

This blog post has been prompted by two different conversations I’ve had about two examples. The first came out of a tweet from my friend Sarah Sherman, who at a conference tweeted, “anyone remember the Swap Shop logo?” to which i replied that I was more of a TISWAS person myself. When I was at school there were definitely two camps of people, you were either a TISWAS person or a Swap Shop one. When TISWAS started it was a bit staid, one person, then two people at a desk, which then opened out into a studio of messy kids shouting at each other, phantom flan flingers, cages, grunge. If there was ever an animal segment, the animal would escape and the hosts would have to run round the studio trying to catch it, slipping on bits of flan. It was anarchic, surreal, raucous and a bad influence. Swap Shop on the other hand was quiet, reserved, based around the idea of exchanging material goods. The children were well-behaved and asked the guests serious questions. It was dull, reserved and set out to improve the audience. I could see why either could appeal to an audience, but for me TISWAS was full of the kind of people I wanted to hang out with, Swap Shop was full of the sort of people I resorted to hanging out with.

Where the trickle up example comes in though was that TISWAS started several years before Swap Shop, but on ATV, back in the days when ITV had a lot of regional programming. It was the first of the model of an entire Saturday morning show, but with segments of cartoons etc. The BBC copied the idea, gave it the swapping twist, and made it national. Fair enough. Most TV entails stealing a format, changing it around slightly, then representing it as your own.

Where the trickle up phenomenon becomes less acceptable though, is often the way that the larger media outlets create a revisionist history which pretends the previous versions didn’t exist. In a recent TV celebration, the BBC did a programme called “It all started with Swap Shop” as if the precursor didn’t exist, and as if they could get away with the retcon because not everyone had seen the original. That kind of revisionist history of how things were created underplays the role of the smaller outlets and the less well-know creators in order to take all the credit for itself. It’s this side of it that annoys me; not least because all too often people who aren’t familiar with the origins fall for it and fail to recognise where the true origins lie.

The same has been happening on the BBC with the 50th Dr Who celebrations. Bringing back Dr Who was a difficult process for Russel T Davies I’m sure. There were a lot of people at the BBC who needed to be convinced of its relevance to a modern audience I’m sure, but all the documentaries I’ve seen about it (for example, the Culture Show one last week) make out that they were working from a blank slate, that there was no idea whether it would work if it was brought up to date. And yet there was six years of Dr Who, remodelled for a modern audience, keeping the essential elements but changing the tone and the direction, in the Big Finish audio material, which had been going since 1999. The nu Who exactly matches that direction and timbre, and uses many of the writers (and some of the scripts) so it’s no coincidence. And yet the influential role they’ve had in the 21st century regeneration have been written out of the history. In fact even before the 9th Doctor appeared, there was a TV discussion between a journalist and Sylveste McCoy (oh that dates me, spelling his name without the “r”) where the arrogant twat of a journalist was saying how it couldn’t work, because it was so old-fashioned in its essence, to which SM replied, “well it’s been working fine for years on audio”. Hopefully that segment is still around somewhere because it would be great to see him held up to public ridicule now.

So — I’m actually relieved I didn’t pursue a career in media. I could imagine how galling it could be to have your contribution overlooked and written out of history, and for someone else to take the credit for your innovation. In this job, both the education aspect and the academic aspect, people seem (on the whole) scrupulously fair about attributing ideas. The trickle up thing happens just as much, the larger organisations trawl the practice of teachers in the classroom for idea, or ask for them to be contributed to reports, but always the origin is acknowledged. In fact there was an excellent JISC programme called LEX which focused on drawing ideas from students themselves, and integrating those into practice. Wherever possible those were credited too. If only the media industry had the same ethos.

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