Counting down Top of the Pops’ run

Stephen Beard Jul 28, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The world’s longest running pop music television show comes to an end this weekend. Sorry to tell you it’s not American Idol. It’s not even on American TV. Britain’s “Top of the Pops” has been around for 42 years. It’s tracked the ups and downs of the British music industry. And the fact that it’s going off the air ought to tell you something about where that industry’s headed. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports:

[SOUND: Rolling Stones, “This could be the last time”]

STEPHEN BEARD: Launched in the middle of the 1960s, “Top of the Pops” could hardly fail. Performing on the first show, miming to their records, were the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, the Dave Clark Five and — oh yeah — the Beatles.

[SOUND: “She Loves You” . . . ]

The weekly, half-hour show became the UK’s main pop music showcase. It featured bands that had got a single into the Top 20 charts. There was a genuine sense of drama, listening to the countdown, finding out who had got to number one. The show was a cultural icon, says its first presenter, now 79 years old, Jimmy Savile.

JIMMY SAVILE: Most television shows last 42 days — if they’re lucky. If you start something in showbiz that lasts for 42 years, you must be inordinately proud.

[SOUND: “Doo Wa Diddy” . . . ]

But “Top of the Pops” has been well past its prime for years. In its heyday in the 60s and 70s, as many as 19 million tuned in every week, roughly a third of the entire population. In recent years the show has been lucky to get a million viewers.

Ludo Hunter-Tilney of the Financial Times says the rot began to set in in the 1980s when an American rival appeared on the scene.

LUDO HUNTER TILNEY: MTV launched in Europe in 1985 and that drew away a lot of the audience who could watch 24-hour music videos rather than wait for a 30-minute fix of them once a week.

Pop stars like Madonna no longer clamoured to get on to Top of the Pops. Now, an artist’s first priority was to make a video and get it screened on MTV.

[SOUND: Madonna, “Like a Virgin . . . “]

Then in the 1990’s another upheaval. The singles market collapsed. Pop fans preferred the better value of the album. This changed everything. With much lower sales overall, you could get a single into the number one slot in Britain by selling only 20,000 copies. The chart became volatile, says Hunter-Tilney. “Top of the Pops” lost its edge.

HUNTER-TILNEY: You would find a very rapid turnover in the Top 10. Singles would debut in the Top 10 and then disappear just as quickly. So that cheapened the whole experience of watching the charts.

[SOUND: Atmos from “Top of the Pops” with countdown. . . ]

The countdown, said one critic, is now flacid and predictable. The Internet has dealt “Top of the Pops” the last fatal blow, says author and former rock musician Neil McCormick.

NEIL McCORMICK: You can see and listen to the music you like without having to put up with all the music you don’t like. Nowadays everything is niche, which is why nobody would go to a one-stop shop like “Top of the Pops” anymore.

But unlike many other middle-aged British pop fans this week, McCormick does not bemoan the demise of Top of the Pops.

McCORMICK: A pop program that isn’t popular is a contradiction in terms. You just can’t have a Top of the Not Very Pops.

[SOUND: The Kinks]

And at least the death of this pop music institution has allowed middle-aged fans to wallow in nostalgia for a while and remember the time when “Top of the Pops” and, they would argue, pop music, reached a peak.

In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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