“What I want is for the band to be noticed.” It’s not a bad calling card for anyone involved with the music industry, but is particularly refreshing to hear from a man with a track record like Chris Cowey. If you’ve watched any music TV in the UK over the past 30 years, chances are you’re already familiar with Chris’s work. From researcher on seminal 80’s show The Tube, to Executive Producer of BBC flagship Top of the Pops, Chris hasn’t just been to the gig and got the t-shirt, he brought a film crew and is probably in the process of getting it syndicated. And he has the war stories to go with it.
As Chris puts it, where he grew up the school careers advisor would be more likely to send him down the pits than into TV land. Fortunately for Chris, it was always about the music, and thus he found himself cutting his live audience teeth DJing to thousands at a Mecca ballroom, in glamorous surroundings… “If the North East had an enema, they’d probably put the tube in Sunderland.”
From here he was spotted by the local regional ITV and was soon presenting the youth orientated show Check It Out. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, as an excruciating interview with John Lydon and the rest of PIL testifies.
From here Chris went on to be a researcher on the team pitching the show that went on to become The Tube, and changed music television in the UK for good. With editorial autonomy, a dedicated, if somewhat eclectic team of live music fanatics and a little of what could be called North Eastern grit, The Tube was a proper music show, playing proper music. You may not love every act, but it was real and about as far from the Old Grey Whistle Test as could be imagined.
A commitment to showcasing the music and avoiding the “aggressive wackiness” of most music television led to Chris coming up with the successful format of The White Room for Channel 4. All the bands played live; no lip-syncing, no phoned-in videos – what you saw was the real deal.
It was exactly this kind of no-nonsense approach to music television that led to the BBC poaching Chris to become Executive Producer of the cultural behemoth that was Top of the Pops. Chris brought in a new logo, a new music policy that saw 87% of acts perform at least live vocals, and a reintroduction of the legendary Led Zeppelin theme tune. But perhaps most important of all was the insistence that acts had to show up – the only way their video was getting show was if they were genuinely stuck in another country, or dead… or both. The result was that the big names came back to TOTP and with them, the viewers. Chris also introduced the TOTP global franchise – clocking up 120 territories in just the first 9 months, and can rightly refer to his time at the top of TOTP as “when it wasn’t shit.
However, the endemic weakness of the singles chart, which discounted all album sales and could lead to so many flash in the pan acts, was a mountain to climb. Where Chris wanted to change the chart, the BBC chose to move the show to BBC 2. Cue Chris making a sharp exit and the show beginning an equally sharp decline that led it to being cancelled in July 2006. What the final shows were like Chris couldn’t tell you, comparing the experience of viewing the program after his tenure to that of “watching someone else shag your ex-girlfriend.”
There were so many other gigs Chris barely had time to mention them – starting the TV coverage of Glastonbury, first at Channel 4 and then later with the Beeb; producing the Brit Awards, and plenty more.
But always in the background, that desire for an equality whereby everyone can have access to really great content. You’d be crazy to like everything out there, but with a decent platform in place, and committed, passionate champions of music behind them like Chris, at least you had the choice. Like an older sibling who’ll let you loose on their record collection – sure, you’ll spot the odd dud in there, but imagine what you’d be watching without that taste curator? Maybe The X Factor...