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Delusion – or the art of getting the wrong end of the stick

In the world of television it is an eternal article of faith that there exists absolutely no accounting for taste and no correlation at all between quality of production and popular success.

Back in the days when I worked briefly in the UK television industry I soon lost count of the number of high-powered intellectual programme makers who constantly and condescendingly bemoaned the fact that cheap and crappy game shows like Give Us A Clue, Catchphrase, Through The Keyhole and Wheel of Fortune were of infinitely greater interest to the average Joe Public member of the British population than were their own high-falutin’, worthy, artsy-fartsy documentaries which in comparison cost a fortune to make yet barely troubled the proverbial needle on the dial of the official British Audience Research Board (‘BARB’) ratings service.

That is the fundamental conceit of the middle class intellectuals who go into television and media. Their inner ambition is to pursue a career in which they make the sort of programmes that they themselves would like to watch and yet – not quite exclusively, yet still overwhelmingly – it is an unavoidable fact of life that the greatest successes, the biggest amounts of money, are to be had from making unashamedly populist (and popular) programming that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

It’s perhaps trite to characterise the issue as boiling down to “Do you want to make the type of programme that wins television festival prizes and possibly respect, plus an enviable reputation, amongst your peers … or do you want to make a ton of money?” because, of course, it’s not that simple.

It is possible to do both – think of Downton Abbey, Planet Earth and other prestigious stuff that is lovingly and carefully-crafted top quality that both wins critical plaudits by the truck-load and brings in mega-money from sales around the world.

Which brings me to the genre of shows that comes under the heading of ‘talent competitions’ in one form or another but which also feature viewer/audience voting.

x-factorThis autumn, as has occurred annually for the last decade and more, the British public has been subjected to the competing delights of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1 and The X-Factor on ITV1.

Every year both are tinkered with, revamped and/or updated, in attempts by their respective producers to ensure that the public does not tire of their formats and that they maintain – if not improve – their ratings. Because, if they do not win big ratings (and in the process, even more importantly, emerge victorious in their own personal ratings battle), then these programmes might lose their raison d‘ètre and thereby succumb to the ever-present danger of being axed – and thereby, horror of horrors, their particular gravy train might even come to a halt.

As it happens I have been watching both Strictly and X-Factor on recent autumn weekends leading up to their recent finals, partly because there is a communal element of compulsion in keeping abreast of their progress because – apart from anything else – it’s difficult to be a part of routine morning chats by the office water-cooler and/or on the afternoon ‘collecting kids from school’ run if you are not.

The fact is that 2015’s version of The X-Factor has been both critically panned and lost out badly in its ratings-battle with Strictly. I am in tune with this verdict, having opted not to watch it at all over the past two months simply because, if I think carefully enough, I am sure that I will always be able to find something more rewarding to do with my precious time.

General received opinion is that Strictly prevails over X-Factor basically because of the female vote – and specifically the over 35s female vote. I even read a joke in last weekend’s press that at last, i.e. now the Strictly final show has been broadcast, for the first time this autumn the nation’s husbands will now be allowed to resume control of the TV remote.

In contrast, X-Factor’s problem is that (supposedly) females over 35 and upwards do not follow ‘modern’ pop music with quite the same fervour as do their counterparts in the 12-30s age bracket. On balance they’d rather watch female celebrities and hunky professional male dancers flouncing around on a dance floor.

And then we come to the thorny issue of voting.

There has been a degree of controversy since the weekend, not just with the outcomes of both Strictly and the X-Factor series, but also with that of the BBC’s annual Sports Personality Of The Year awards show.

I’ve got just two points to make on this subject.

Firstly, and whilst I have no proof of this, I am sure it is within the bounds of probability that producers of these shows sometimes try to ensure that they retain and build public interest by manipulating popular votes to ensure that different ‘types’ of contestant either stay in or leave the programme when the time comes to ‘lose’ someone.

strictlyYou know the sort of thing, and here I’m taking Strictly as my example: first stage, get rid of the really useless, tone-deaf or physically-challenged contestants (or alternatively keep them in if they’re funny enough, intentionally or not); second stage, keep bringing back the ones who do become ‘causes célèbre’, e.g. (in previous Strictly series) people like Ann Widdecombe and John Sargent, and – in this one – Newsnight presenter Jeremy Vine, because the public fall in love with them.

Until the semi-final and final stage, of course, when the judges get progressively more ‘creative’ in seeking to engineer things to ensure that the best three or four dancers are left standing at the end to complete for the main prize.

Secondly, and this is the kernel of my piece today, all those in the press and on social media who have taken issue with the Strictly result – partly because the judges appeared, deliberately in my eyes, to mark down Jay McGuiness, the ex-The Wanted singer, and his professional partner whilst then giving top marks to Kellie Bright and Georgia May Foote … possibly in an attempt to influence the result only to be trumped – if indeed ‘manipulation’ was the judges’ intention – by the huge public vote for Mr McGuiness, have missed the essential point.

Surprise, surprise, folks – Strictly Come Dancing is not a talent show at all.

It is a popularity contest played out over three or four months, with the outcome being decided (that is, unless producer skulduggery comes into it) entirely and exclusively by votes cast by the great British viewing public.

The same applies to the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year. Whatever anyone thinks, it has never been a way of recognising the greatest British sporting achievement of the year.

If it was, it would be a difficult enough task anyway – for how can you actually (seriously) compare outstanding achievements in sports as varied as track & field, cricket, rugby, soccer, rowing, tennis, motor bike racing and clay-pigeon shooting to decide which of them has been the greatest?

It’s the equivalent, isn’t it, of trying to compare ‘chalk and cheese’ umpteen times over?

murrayI went to bed before the end of the programme, but I understand Andy Murray became Sports Personality of The Year for the second time for his 2015 achievements, retired rugby league great Kevin Sinfield came second, Jessica Ennis-Hill third … and the pariah Tyson Fury fourth.

Allegedly Murray garnered 361,000 votes; Sinfield 278,000; Ennis-Hill 80,000; and Fury 72,000.

There are all sorts of issues here. Murray was a deserved winner in my view, but there may have been a ‘lifetime achievement’ effect in the Sinfield public vote because never before has a rugby league player even been nominated – it’s entirely possible that the geographical heartlands of the sport were motivated to vote as never before simply because of that fact.

It was of course a close run – and convenient – thing for the BBC that Tyson Fury did not take third place by outscoring Ennis-Hill, especially after he made his impolitically-correct comments about women – and Ennis-Hill in particular (something to the effect that he was supposedly paying her a ‘she scrubs up well’ type compliment).

One would, of course, hesitate ever to suggest that the BBC may have subtlely ‘arranged’ the result to avoid getting into any more hot water over knocking-back several public attempts to get Fury ejected from the list of nominees.

But I return to the same point again.

The BBC Sports Personality Of The Year programme has never been about which sportman’s (or sportswoman’s) achievements have been greatest in any particular 12 month period.

It’s a straightforward popularity contest, folks!

[The clue is in the title, if you think about it …]

About Bernadette Angell

After cutting her journalistic teeth in Boston USA, Bernadette met and married an Englishman, whom she followed back to London. Two decades and three children later, they divorced. She now occupies herself as a freelance writer (credits include television soaps and radio plays) and occasional amateur gardener. More Posts