LAST week I saw one of the saddest lists of recent times. It was a list of the television shows that generated the most audience complaints in 2018. What a pathetic, uninspiring and truly unmemorable collection it proved to be. It made you yearn for the days when Mary Whitehouse got her elasticated knickers in a twist over the word “Jesus”.

If this is the cutting edge of modern television then we are in a very dreary place. There was not a single show that stood out as truly controversial, and not one moment that would even register with you after only a few passing months.

Controversy is in perilous decline and I doubt that shows that genuinely shock viewers will ever return to our screens.

Controversy is now set so firmly in the past, that it is barely an issue for today’s senior television managers: risk, innovation and daring social issues seem like television concepts from the distant past.

I confess I share some of the blame. We live in the era of listomania when almost every human experience from food to fellatio can be reduced to a Top Ten. This media trope compresses any passing phenomenon into easy digestible bites. Listmania has been exacerbated by the internet, but beyond the time-honoured music charts, “countdown media” owes their modern genesis to the so-called list shows that dominated Channel 4 weekend schedules in the late 1990s.

I hold my hands up having commissioned or edited many of those shows. My only defence is that they were broadcast at a time when the words complaint and controversy still had meaning.

British TV has witnessed a golden era of onscreen controversy since Channel 4 arrived on air. In 1984, Brookside’s infamous lesbian kiss became a landmark in sexual politics.

It was the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss to be broadcast on British television, and although it caused an outrage at the time, each succeeding year gay love affairs and same-sex kissing became more commonplace – some might even say an easy dramatic cliché for the modern metro-sexual dramatist.

The lesbian kiss became fully incorporated into mainstream British life with the live transmission of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. The kiss was seen by an estimated global TV audience of 900 million people, many in countries where homosexuality was still illegal.

Outrage about gay love resurfaced with the transmission of the Manchester-based drama Queer As Folk, which began with scenes of consensual rimming, and led to a now familiar regulatory presumption – ‘‘21:00 is a watershed not a waterfall”.

In 2001, Chris Morris’s brutally satirical Brass Eye featuring the now notorious Paedogeddon sparked the most public complaints in the history of British TV, with disgusted viewers and several duped politicians decrying the broadcast. Alas we may never see testing television like it again.

The National:

Chris Morris's Brass Eye earned itself bags of complaints

WE know that the print press like to whip up a storm and never tire of sniping at television, but even their search for controversy seems half-hearted. The long journey of complaint which reached its high point during the years of Mary Whitehouse and the Christian-inspired Viewers and Listeners Association is now withering away, tamed by a profoundly changed media landscape.

Complaints to regulators fell again last year, and the most notable controversies featured shows that are mainstream family entertainment. Last year, Ofcom received a total of almost 56,000 complaints about programmes. Many now take to Twitter and Facebook to vent their spleen and run out of the energy to formalise a complaint.

Together, the top 10 most complained about television shows prompted just over 47,000 complaints, making up 86% of the year’s total. It’s a pitiful total when compared with football attendances.

Almost half the complaints were about Channel Five’s Big Brother, mostly allegations of physical abuse made by Roxanne Pallett against Ryan Thomas, a television outrage so tame in its relevance I hadn’t even been aware of it at the time.

ITV reality shows Love Island and The X Factor also featured in the list of complaints, as did soap operas Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

What is depressing for those of us that relish controversy and revel in the shock of the new is that all the shows that were complained about in 2018 have been on air for years. No new shows provoked any significant controversy and, worryingly, not a single documentary featured in the top 10 that most troubled regulators.

Changes in media delivery seem to have unintentionally tamed controversy. The internet is the first and most forceful enemy of television controversy – put simply, the action has moved elsewhere. The dark web, social media and chat messaging are now of much greater concern to parents and politicians than television. Many parents agonise more about what their kids are doing online than what they watch on the box, and so consequently the 21:00 television watershed seems like quaint concern from a past era.

A second change is the domination of celebrity and reality shows. From dating to baking, formatted factual rules modern television, and the big shows have had a disproportionate impact on the decline of controversy.

By being so rigidly formatted, factual formats rarely allow the unexpected to creep in, and by displacing edgier documentaries from the schedules they have rendered social observational filmmaking all but marginal in prime-time.

Factual formats seem to be tipping inexorably towards over-constructed narrative too. “And leaving the house this week is” ... long faux-dramatic pause, cut to anxious faces of people you’ve barely heard of as they rush to cuddle their mum.

A third threat to controversy is the new generation of streaming on-demand channels. Netflix and Amazon Prime, in particular, are subscription services, and so, unlike BBC, ITV and Channel 4, we literally invite them into our home, paying for them, and then taking time to select, download and watch, sometimes in defiance of there even being a watershed.

One of the most common complaints in the era of Mary Whitehouse was that “filth” came into our homes uninvited, like leaking sewage. It would be a strange person that would subscribe to Netflix, select “download Narcos” and them complain about the violence.

A fourth shift in media controversy has been brought about by fragmentation. In the 1960s and 1970s we tended to watch television as a family, with only one set in the front room of a house. Now there are several television sets dotted around houses, and hundreds of channels to choose from.

The outcome is that we rarely share television experiences now, and when we do it is usually live sport, such as the Olympics, the World Cup or Wimbledon.

While these events can excite, they rarely provoke controversies that can be blamed on broadcasters.

Think back to Scotland’s failed trip to Argentina in 1978 – we have blamed the beleaguered Ally MacLeod, the hapless SFA and the rogue pills that the much maligned Willie Johnston took. No one has ever blamed Argentinean telly.

As the television media fragments even further, new viewing options multiply and the internet disrupts the way we consume media, we should be grateful for a world of plenty, but something strange has happened.

We are now surrounded by imagery every moment of the waking day, and yet those special and memorable images and stories that truly challenge us seem to be in retreat.

I hope passionately that I am wrong, but it may well be that controversy on television is a thing of the past, yet another part of life we can only feel nostalgic about.