Bits, Channel 4’s Legendary Computer Gaming Show

Mainstream television has always struggled with the popularity of computer gaming for adults and the peer-driven culture around it. Since the early days of the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum broadcasters have generally approached PC and console games with relative disdain. Beyond novelty appearances on light entertainment shows or the news, the subject was very much confined to children’s programming, sometimes with hilarious results (ignorant presenters fumbling over games-pads or talking down to kids obviously more knowledgeable than themselves).

Despite the emergence of a clear and identifiable “gaming culture” among adult consumers in the mid-1990s most terrestrial, cable and satellite broadcasters continued to puzzle over the market. Conventional wisdom held that computer gaming was too niche a subject to bring to TV in a manner that would engage general audiences. This was coupled with the ongoing perception among senior television executives and programme-makers in the 1990s and early 2000s that “games” were for children, teenagers or geeks, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Rather appropriately the PC and console scene for adult players and devotees eventually by-passed the old broadcasting channels, taking to the internet, proliferating on YouTube as well as dedicated sites like Twitch.

That said, from the 1990s to early 2000s there were some attempts to bring fully-formed computer game shows to television, notably in Britain where the gamer scene was developing a considerable cross-over with European “rave” culture. While Channel 4’s seminal GamesMaster is probably the best know example of this, the programme’s position in the evening schedules geared it more towards older children and teenagers than grownups. However another offering from the same British broadcaster, in its famously louche 4Later slot, was Bits, which ran across five seasons from 1999 to 2001. If GamesMaster and its host, cheeky-chappie Dominik Diamond, were slyly tongue-in-cheek, the Bits’ presenters were explicitly in your face, their sights set on the late night post-party crowd in Britain (or in Ireland, France and the Netherlands if you were lucky enough to pick up TV signals from the UK).

A screengrab of Bits, with presenters Emily Booth, Aleks Krotoski and Emily Newton Dunn

Bits was very much about its charismatic hosts, the “grrrl power” tone of the show being derived from its trio of attractive presenters in the first season, Aleks Krotoski, Emily Newton Dunn and Claudia Trimde. While the former pair were serious and knowledgeable gamers with connections to the emerging industry in Britain, the German-born Trimde was a jobbing TV host and model, brought in to give the series some non-geek glamour. By season two she had been seamlessly replaced with Emily “Bouff” Booth, another non-gamer though one with a background in acting and a strong interest in cult cinema. For many fans the addition of Booth – and the new chemistry between the three – marked the beginning of the definitive version of Bits.

In terms of the show’s structure, most episodes began with a “news desk” opening in the studio – a sort of mock students’ apartment – where the presenters ran through the latest hardware and gaming updates from around the world. It then moved onto more in-depth items such as reviews or feature reports, frequently involving location shooting. These segments were usually broken up by one or two minute sketches, notable for their punk energy and satirical nature.

Despite the minuscule budget of Bits the show never felt egregiously cheap, the production team going to enormous lengths to stretch every pound spent. Indeed the three hosts were famous for working long hours to complete each episode, following the leads of producer-director Aldo Palumbo and director Louise Lockwood. However by the end of the fifth season the manic energy of the show was beginning to flag, some of the heretofore imaginative or quirky reviews and comedy pieces falling flat. A hoped for six series never appeared, the programme leaving on a still high note, one that has enhanced its well-earned cult status down through the years.

After Bits the New Orleans-raised Aleks Krotoski moved for a time onto other TV shows before emerging in the last few years as a well-respected technology journalist and lecturer with a brace of degrees, books and documentaries to her name. Emily Newton Dunn quickly returned to the games’ industry, working with various big-name companies including Criterion Games and Electronic Arts. Perhaps appropriately enough, Claudia Trimde founded her own small retail business, selling luxury goods at discount prices. Emily Booth became a well-known presenter for various geek-related conventions, websites and television stations, while also doing some modelling and acting. Today she is a regular host on the Horror Channel in the UK.

The turn of the millennium Bits was very much of its time, a period when PC and console gaming was coming of age, and the trio of confident young women who presented it were very much the clubbing face of that era. Powered by enthusiasm, charisma and intelligence, with DayGlo belly-tops and chunky boots, they kicked back against the stereotypes of gamers. At the same time they showed female viewers that they had just as much right to be participants – or leaders – in the gaming scene as their male counterparts. It is a poor state of affairs that nearly two decades after Bits first hit the TV screens this latter point still needs to be made. The problem with the Gamergate “bros”, as I have said before, is too much Ethan Ralph and not enough Krotoski, Newton Dunn and Booth. Or their successors.

The series has never been released on home media, note even a “Best of…” compilation, so we must make do with the few episodes which have made their way onto YouTube or similar websites. Enjoy the below Xmas special from way back in December 2000. And wonder why we don’t have similarly anarchic shows devoted to gaming today.

 

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