I admit I've always found the Cowey era quite dull too for some reason, when watching back the 1993-98 episodes I have, the episodes after Cowey took over seem to lack something of the earlier episodes (even the 1993 Appel ones!). I don't think it helped he all but scrapped music videos, which limited what could be played (you often had songs going down the charts or the same song on consecutive weeks in his era- presumably to fill out the show and which artists they could book), which meant if an artist couldn't/wouldn't perform you likely wouldn't get it on TOTP at all- and often meant you saw the same performance over and over when a song hung around high in the charts for a while and the artist couldn't/wouldn't give a repeat performance (when in the past they would have included the video some weeks to mix things up). The show being stitched together from performances recorded at totally different times during his tenure didn't help either- it helps with a show like that that the artists are there in the studio, not just turning up to record it like 3 months earlier when they had some spare time.
I was actually quite enthusiastic when Cowey took over and I thought for the first year or so the shows were quite good - there seemed to be more imagination shown in the production and you had the return of performances shot in front of the audience which made it look like it was on quite a big scale. In Richard Marson's new book about Blue Peter he talks about making a behind the scenes film when Katy Hill presented it, and he says that while Cowey was ostensibly the director, he wouldn't work off a script and instead sit in the gallery saying "I like camera one!" or "Those are good shots, four!" (he'd stopped using camera scripting at the time) and just get a general feeling for the show, and it was up to the Vision Mixer and Camera Supervisor to actually make the decisions. He also says that because it was at Elstree, miles away from TV Centre, it had become a complete self-contained unit and Cowey had total power, with everyone always saying "I'll just check that with Chris" and "Chris says yes".
But as you mention, the enthusiasm seemed to wear off quite quickly and it soon became as mechanical and predictable as any previous incarnation - if not more so, because you soon got used to how Cowey made the show and his usual turns of phrase in the presenters' script (this was probably the age the presenters exhibited the least individual personality, it seemed very heavily scripted) and the framework of the show. It didn't surprise me very much at all in those days (not helped by the pre-recorded format meaning any real excitement was already revealed in the press ages in advance).
As for the removal of videos, I suppose the idea was that you could see them on a million other places and the USP of the show was the performances - and they certainly achieved their aim in luring people on, because they used clips of performances during the Top 20 countdown and I remember counting how many of the Top 20 acts had been in the studio, and it was usually the vast, vast majority. But it did mean that they would always prioritise a performance - even if it was one that had been seen umpteen times before - over a video, so the show got more repetitive, and you got daft things like when Ray Of Light by Madonna wasn't played despite it being at number two. And in the end it didn't make it seem much of an event because even the least attentive viewer could tell it was all being put together in the edit suite (whereas under Ric Blaxill, when they did the performances via satellite, they would always go over to them "live", even though the show was always pre-recorded and they could have done them at any time, because it made the recording itself and that particular episode feel like an event).
According to a latterday chart book, that (as it turned out) one-off double A-side single, by someone who had clearly outlived whatever usefulness she had ever had in pop terms, was on a label called 19 Recordings/Moody (!), who I presume were an independent label who had staked everything on it.
Well, 19 Recordings would presumably have been Simon Fuller's company, so I don't know about this. But the Victoria Beckham business was a major selling point in the first few weeks as the idea was the viewers could vote for which of the tracks would be the official A-side and the one she performed. Except the record was released as a double-A side and she performed the other one the following week anyway.
Thinking about the introduction of the '85 line-up, sadly, the number of eligible records which could have appeared on TOTP was quite small within the Top 40:
Outside the Top 10, they couldn't feature songs which were climbing back up the charts, as they hadn't matched their peak position (including Alison Moyet); nor could they feature songs from the last previous regular edition of TOTP (in this case, 20-12-2014, hence Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Bronski Beat - leaving only three tracks they could have featured - Grandmaster Melle Mel, Smiley Culture and Sal Solo - which they did.
Actually I thought last week's episode was quite successful in that they managed to play, yes, "more top hits" with plenty of songs from the top ten. But that was clearly never sustainable as they'd so rarely be able to get so many top ten acts into the studio at the same time.
Apparently Brian Whitehouse and Stan Appel were responsible for a large chunk of episodes during the 1986-89 era (I have the first 2 episodes from 1986 a well as one from December 88- Whitehouse is credited as producer on all three, and Stan Appel credited as producer on an episode I have from January 1987), even though Michael Hurll and Paul Ciani were officially in charge- both are still with us (albeit in their mid-80s), so I'd like to see if BBC4 could get them for the Stories Of for those years too. As I said, getting interviews with those in charge has been sadly lacking from these documentries (though for obvious, sad, reasons).
Stanley Appel and Brian Whitehouse were also regular producers in previous years - Appel produced more or less the last four months of 1984 because Hurll was concentrating on The Late Late Breakfast Show and was less hands-on, as had Whitehouse in the last few months of 1982 and 1983. Hurll would still be in overall control of the show but Appel and Whitehouse were quite frequently in day-to-day charge.