In among the tinselly pile-up of Christmas broadcasting, you'd be forgiven for not spotting Top of the Pops, which broadcasts its only show of the year on BBC1 tomorrow at 2pm.
It's not in a plum slot – it's too noisy to function well as a dinner backdrop and on too early for the sherry haze. But at least it's there. It's a thin line, though, between tradition and throwback. Like Santa, TOTP now arrives in our living rooms but once a year. Unlike Santa, you have to be over a certain age to still believe in it.
The brand endures, but the arguments against a weekly, generalist music show are familiar and compelling. TOTP died a lingering death and none of its rivals fared any better. The core youth audience wasn't interested any more, the music scene was split, and the rump of people who did care were fuelled by habit and nostalgia. And with each year that passes the format grows mustier, a vehicle for worn-smooth memories of Legs & Co and Jocky Wilson backdrops.
Christmas, though, is a time to be sentimental. After all, the BBC's seasonal flagship, Doctor Who, was in its time a victim of the Friday night graveyard slot that ultimately did for TOTP. Is a similar resurrection so unthinkable? No doubt the record industry would appreciate a primetime showcase for its product during grim times. But the question of who might watch is thornier. Music is still very important to a lot of people, but that doesn't automatically translate to a desire to see it on TV.
Top of the Pops' long decline saw plenty of goes at freshening its format. Two ideas in particular seemed to gnaw at producers: relevance and credibility. These are exactly the qualities niche TV is set up to deliver, and the search for them was rooted in a distrust of the public and its willingness to buy or enjoy records that might make televisual sense to its desired audience. But the solutions – greater editorial control and more live performances – only diluted TOTP's central strength: giving the lame the chance to rub shoulders with the awesome.
Top of the Pops has always been a show not about what you love, but about what other people love. I've heard, repeatedly, that audiences are fragmenting and that the idea of a pop culture with certain unifying markers is dead. But the fantasy of pop represented by TOTP isn't that everyone likes the same stuff, it's that everyone argues about the same stuff. Teenage obsession comes matched with playground disdain; someone's moment of musical awakening is another's boot through the telly.
So what you need for Top of the Pops to work is a situation in which people care about what's popular and readymade hooks for them to argue about it. The show used to manufacture the former by offering the latter, and failed when its viewers found better things to chat about.
But we've now had a decade of reality shows based on a public appetite for popularity contests, and a half-decade of growth in online networks to ease and spread conversations. In a world where most viewers are also on Facebook, audiences may be just as fragmented but it's very easy to make a user feel otherwise. Social media is immediate and busy enough to make those joining in live conversations around a show – via Facebook group or Twitter hashtag – feel as if they are part of a mass audience, even if they're not. Media audiences used to cohere because of the lack of other things to watch. Now they also cohere when we see online what other people are doing and join in.
Top of the Pops is an ideal format for this kind of activity – precisely because of the way the show was a triangulation point for taste rather than representing anyone's in particular. In the same way, the spread of views on Question Time have made it a huge hashtag hit. There are still problems with the idea of a revival – the stickiest being finding a way to measure popularity which works better than the creaky one of how many people buy a piece of music. But it's become possible, at least, to imagine a future for the show beyond its current half-life as a Christmas Day spacefiller.
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