Saturday, August 29, 2009 by



It’s not a big thing. Not a big thing at all, but I’ve always been conscious that any ‘behind the scenes’ info regarding OTT is going to be, at best, of minimal interest to anyone.

But, today the site officially (I say officially, there’s been no Home Office ruling or anything) celebrates its 10th birthday. So, for my sake more than anyone else’s, today I write a little about what OTT is, and how it came to be.

Good luck to all who click the ‘Read the story’ link!

First up, how come today’s designated our birthday? It’s because the first ever review – Jack‘s piece on Late Night Poker - sports that time-stamp. Of course, that’s not when the piece was actually published. And it’s not even the first feature ever to creep onto OTT (don’t ask me what was – possibly a terrible and long-deleted thing I wrote about Grange Hill which started life as a bit of portfolio plumping for a job application the aforementioned JKW was completing). But in terms of, I guess, importance, Jack’s idea for a regularly updated reviews section (then called Did You See?) was really what made the site what it was. And to some extent still is.

So, the first version of Off The Telly lived at and looked a bit like this…

Version 1: 1999-2000

Version 1: 1999

Click on the image if you want to see a larger version. Anyway, that’s not actually the original title page – which is long gone – but one I recreated in 2004 during OTT’s fifth anniversary (it was facts like this you clicked through for, right?). No idea why I thought some vague tribute to Rediffusion was apt; I just did. But because of that, OTT was lumbered with a monochromatic colour scheme for – well – nine years. It’s a wonder we lasted.

If you clicked on that starburst, you’d be taken through to a Microsoft FrontPage and PhotoDraw powered website. All grey on black… and long since departed from even’s backlog. I can barely remember it now.

But why had I even made the thing in the first place?

Well at the time, I was living in Glasgow, working part-time for the BBC’s Audience Line service (taking calls for Crimewatch Daily, or those prompted by Jimmy Young on Radio 2). I was also a half-arsed mature student, working on some kind of new media course out of Paisley. And I was a keen contributor to TV Cream. Plus, I’d (fairly) recently read The Guinness Book of Classic British TV by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, which I considered a seminal piece of criticism. It always annoyed me that broadsheet TV reviews rarely engaged (a ubiquitous word in early OTT) with the programmes they were writing about, instead either skitting off the show’s subject matter, or firing off a flurry of one-liners.

So I wanted something meaty about TV. Something – rather snobbishly – unwebby. My skin falls off in shame as I cut and paste in the following text, but here’s how I pompously summed it up back in 1999 on the never-much-loved OTT mailing list. I do so, only to beg for your forgiveness…

The internet is full of sites which regurgitate plot-synopsis, cast lists and well known facts that can be found anywhere, and are more importantly readily available to the type of person who’s going to visit your site in the first place. Here’s Jon Pertwee “who played the third Doctor as a dashing man of action, exiled on Earth by the Timelords. His first story, Spearhead From Space, featured the deadly Autons …” or how about “The Clangers entertained legions of children in the ‘70s …” and did you know that “When Val left, Lesley Judd joined the team …”? Twaddle that’s papped out by people who want to be published but have nothing to say.


Anyway, I was lucky to pick up some early adopters: Jack, Robin Carmody, David Savage, David Sheldrick, Jane Redfern and Ian Jones. This lot quickly fuelled the site with a huge array of work, while I instigated a new ‘regular item’, Flame On!, dedicated to reproducing the best flame wars on TV-related discussion boards/groups. Thankfully, I dropped this regular item after one edition (a lengthy essay about a Red Dwarf-related spat, of all things), realising that poking fun at the web’s most inflamatory contributors was perhaps going to prove more trouble than it was worth.

In January 2000, I bought the domain name, and somewhere around this point (not sure quite when) the site changed its design. This one was a little bit better (still in black and white, though, but I’ve always quite liked that logo). As before, this isn’t an originally minted grab of OTT back then, instead it’s another mock-up from 2004…

Version 2: 2000-2001

Version 2: 2000-2002

With this new look came – I hate to say it – another innovation from Jack. And quite a simple one too: the concept of regular, diarised updates alongside the ad hoc arrival of reviews. Now, let’s be clear; he didn’t get it all right. His suggestion was for OTT to go weekly. Bloody hell. I opted for monthly, and suddenly, we had a real sense of momentum. The need to get something chunky and new online – in fact three things chunky and new – every 30 days really gave it some impetus.

Then, Ian came up with the notion of TV24; reviewing 24 hours of UK terrestrial output, which at the time seemed like a huge, overwhelming project to take on. But it came together pretty well, and kind of widened the parameters – or more accurately, the scale – of what we’d be prepared to do from that point onwards (and also resulted in a spin-off, vanity-published book… Ian might still have some copies left).

Hereon in it becomes a bit of a blur. Reviews of all of BBC2′s I Love franchise, the first few years of Big Brother, TV’s General Election coverage dissected hour-by-hour, Asa Briggs (don’t ask)… Oh and Steve Williams arrived, bringing with him the site’s first interview, when Lee and Herring got in touch in response to a piece Steve had previously written.

Somewhere around this point, Andrew Collins became involved in the OTT mailing list, absorbing barbs about EastEnders (which he was then writing) with good humour and submitting the occasional article. And Stuart Maconie also popped up for a one-post-only contribution on the list (something to do with tending to a wounded swan) and wrote a pretty positive review of OTT in Q magazine, albeit rightly describing it as “slightly self-important”.

Andrew, also, flexed his journo muscles, in an April 2001 edition of The Observer.

…Take the colloquially named Off The Telly, whose Yahoo-run forum is an oasis of calm with real names. OTT, created and maintained as a labour of love since 1999, exists chiefly as a platform for quality, non-professional TV reviewing… [Graham Kibble-White] admits that OTT ‘flagrantly underuses the potential of the internet’, in that it mainly features huge swaths of white-on-black text, ignoring internet ‘grazing’ orthodoxy, but providing a welcome resource of informed criticism. The ‘Did You See?’ archive has built, month by month, into a valuable reference (each edition of I Love The 80s was assessed individually and at length), and the ongoing history of breakfast TV by student Ian Jones is good enough to be published as a book.

Funny he should say that. Morning Glory was, clearly, the most important thing to happen to OTT. A meticulously researched and excellently written history of… well, Andrew’s said it, “student” Ian Jones paved the way for the other OTT ‘epics’ that would follow (Jack and Steve’s history of Saturday night telly, The Glory Game; TJ Worthington‘s still-on-the-website-and-thank-God-for-that Of Finger Mice and Mr Men; and Steve’s also-still-online Goalmouths). Plus, Morning Glory did turn into a book… as did The Glory Game (kind of), while also inspiring a rather good C4 documentary.

And in the midst of all this – April 2002 – came, oh yes, another redesign. Let’s have a look…

Version 3: 2002-2008

Version 3: 2002-2008

This took bloody ages to make. I came up with a rough design, which Jane turned into HTML reality. Then we spent forever cutting and pasting from black to… well, an array of pastel colours, for some reason. Now, the section on comedy and the section on children’s shows could be usefully identified by their slightly different shades of pale magenta! Nonetheless, if I say so myself, once built it all worked quite well. I was subscribing to a kind of low-fi ethos, reasoning that as OTT was mainly text on a screen, there was little point in prettying it up – and slowing it down. Note: The black and white images still clung on in there.

And thus things continued: many, many more writers contributing (some loads, some just one article before disappearing again, another one ultimately asking his name be taken off everything he submitted), as each month we churned it out.

In 2005, the OTT blog began, in 2006, I scrapped the OTT mailing list (probably a year too late, really). The site moved to a server hosted by the excellent David Bodycombe, while I moved on in careers – three years at Mersey TV where I worked alongside Ian (hence his name was temporarily removed from some of his more critical pieces about Hollyoaks) – before moving to London (via 18 months in Yorkshire) to become a TV journo.

By 2008, hand-coding (well, Dreamweavering) a new edition of OTT every month, with all the cross-referenced links that meant creating, plus time spent subbing, was proving to be too much. I slapped a sign on the front page announcing regular updates were stopping until I could find a new way to do things. Various people came forward with suggestions (one chap from the BBC I met up with in a pub – he was confident he’d be able to whip up a new OTT in a matter of months… I never saw him again) and ultimately I found WordPress, eventually managed to install the software, and OTT flickered back into life once again somewhere around August last year.

I guess, since then, it’s continued flickering and has never quite regained that early momentum. Updates are less frequent, while I’m constantly challenged by the politics of being paid to write about TV (and thus having access to stuff) while also maintaining a not-for-profit website in which I don’t inadvertently break any embargoes or piss off contacts from  TV companies… while still writing honestly about telly. To further complicate things, my eye has also been taken off the ball with the huge job that is rebuilding TV Cream.

Nevertheless, hopefully soon me, and Ian Jones and Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams and Stuart Ian Burns and Dominic Small and anyone else who fancies it can reclaim Off The Telly and give it a bit more oomph. At the time of writing, the plan is, at least, to kick off a new ‘epic’ feature on Monday. Let’s see if that happens.

But for now, thanks to everyone who’s contributed over the last decade, everyone who’s read the site, everyone who took part in the mailing list and everyone who’s left a comment. And most importantly of all, thanks to you, for making it to the end of this piece.


12 Responses to “1OTT”

  1. Jack Kibble-White on August 29th, 2009 12:32 am

    Well I’m 1,289 words into writing the first part of that ‘epic’ feature, and it’s already starting to look like it’s going to be bigger than first anticipated. But writing it right now does feel quite apt. To continue the congratulatory / self-congratulatory vibe ten years is a long time at anything and a lifetime on the internet, so to have kept Off The Telly going with only the occasional enforced break is truly an impressive act of will power on Graham’s part. Most things really worth doing need someone who can supply those qualities.

    Nothing else to add that won’t sound even more horribly back slappy, except to say it’s nice to see new writers appearing on the site, but also very satisfying that a fair few of the original contributors from – get this – the 1990s are still here.

    So is Danny Baker going to lead us in a round of “ten more years”?

  2. Ian Jones on August 29th, 2009 1:14 pm

    I heard that Asa Briggs ended up as a computer programmer for a price comparison website based in South Mimms.

  3. Jon Haw on August 30th, 2009 12:05 pm

    Thank you all for many hours of entertainment and here’s to another 10 years (at least)

    A thought struck me while reading this article: You say that the earliest incarnation of OTT is now lost forever – is anyone out there archiving the Internet? For example, do the BBC’s first faltering steps onto the web still exist anywhere? Does the first ever Amazon front page or those early AOL pages still exist on someones hard drive? Web pages may seem disposable to us, but future generations may find pages captured at a point in time fascinating, in the same way that some of us weirdos find old TV presentation and ad breaks fascinating. I for one would love to see the old “Beeb” website again, and seeing the pic above of the old Version 2 OTT page actually made me feel a bit nostalgic!

    30 years from now, will a “Missing Presumed Wiped” type organisation be appealing for people to search their old hard drives for cached web pages from the 90s? Just a thought.

  4. Dan Pearce on August 30th, 2009 8:20 pm

    Jolly well done. I’ve always considered OTT to be the ‘Look and Learn’ to TVCream’s ‘Wizzer and Chips’. Different styles, but both welcome to drop on my metaphorical doormat. Is that too trite? I do hope so.
    10 more years!

  5. Steve Williams on August 31st, 2009 1:06 pm

    What Graham doesn’t mention here was that in that first incarnation, each month also had a Radio Times mock-up front page, which I thought were really smashing. Are any of those still knocking around, I wonder?

    Jack’s suggestion that OTT went weekly was probably made around the same time he suggested Creamguide should go daily. And also that it should join the Water Rats.

  6. Jack Kibble-White on August 31st, 2009 1:23 pm

    Well 1 of those 3 is a great idea Steve.

    To Jon’s point above, there are a number of institutions that are archiving the internet, including the British Library and the National Library of Scotland. There is also, whose main aim is precisely this.

  7. Graham Kibble-White on September 1st, 2009 10:25 am

    As for the hopes of launching that new ‘epic’ feature yesterday, clearly that didn’t happen. Hopefully, start of next month!

  8. Dominic Small on September 1st, 2009 1:45 pm

    So I get back from my Bank Holiday break and find there’s a party going on – skill! It’s great that OTT has been ploughing its quality furrow for a decade now (and in internet terms that’s bloody ages!) so hearty congratulations are due to all those who laid the groundwork. Long may the flag continue flying for TV-based penmanship; as the new boy in class I’ll certainly do my bit to keep the OTT candle burning!

  9. Mark on September 4th, 2009 3:27 pm

    “there are a number of institutions that are archiving the internet, including the British Library and the National Library of Scotland”

    And it’s a nightmare of a job, don’t you know.

    For all that the Web is an amazing leap forward in the world of information, I think its fluid nature is going to be the bane of many a future historian’s life. Yes, there’s an amazing quantity of information, but it lacks permanance. If something you publish becomes an embarrassment then you can airbrush it from history. You can’t burn all of yesterday’s newspapers, but yesterday’s blog entry can cease to exist if you want it to.

  10. nick H on September 4th, 2009 6:19 pm

    This the irony of the early years of websites such as this. Evidence of their existence is as rare as those of early television. Who said we wouldn’t make the same mistakes again after wiping most of the TV of the 1950s and 60s?

  11. Iain Griffiths on September 5th, 2009 1:14 am

    Well as a former contributor all I can say is congrats on 10 years and I wish I had more to say on telly over the past 8 years.

  12. David McNay on September 21st, 2009 8:58 pm

    What Iain said.

    I really should try and write some more stuff these days…