Monday, 29 November 2010

Have your votes changed anything?Television democracy gone mad

There is a fine line between relative taste and completely missing the point. Most people I would like to think, understand the notion that if you held a public vote for best song, you would vote for the song you like the most, not the one you wish to inflict on people because it's rubbish and you're just having a laugh. And yet because of the way most of these formats are set up, there is a super representation of people who have access to electronic devices such as mobiles and texting, too much money  and far too much time. The result is joke party contestants on programmes from X factor to Strictly to Britain's got talent seem to last far longer than they should, often at the expense of  more talented people, and sometimes come close to winning.

We cannot of course blame  the public entirely, when for example on X factor or BGT the judges panel passes through contenders who struggle to hold a note, are patently without talent, and sometimes, dangerously unstable, all in aid of taking the mick out of each other, it is hardly surprising when viewers take the hint and do the same thing. Then you have a programme like Strictly come dancing that , if you believe the stories, has asked a wide variety of  B list and A list celebrities of varying potential to dance, to be on the show. Some have wisely refused, others have jumped at the chance. To say that Strictly and X factor have always been about ratings is to ignore the origins, at one point they did in fact aspire to find new talent or the best amateur dancer. Now of course, in varying degrees, you have to wonder just how seriously they take the titles of the programmes any more.  

Lets first look at X factor, however much one disagrees with the taste in music of Simon Cowell, and his clear desire to freeze out all other styles from the mainstream of music, and I do disagree strongly, one had to admire at first his brutal honesty and desire to find new talent that might have otherwise struggled for years unnoticed. What has happened since of course, is that Syco productions have taken the format of talent show music and variety and turned the entire exercise into advert selling with an ultimate goal of  as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time regardless of the effect on the music and the alleged talent.  I shudder to think what the Queen imagines the Royal Variety performance will be from now on, but it certainly isn't anything as awe inspiring as it used to be. JLS, urban dance troupes and barely able to sing skinny women pretending to be Beyonce Knowles. The notion of the well rounded variety performer as we used to see as late as the the 1980's has given way to one trick pony acts and controversy courting jesters who are famous only because Simon Cowel and his bickering panel allow them to be. It was sometime last year when even the most innocent of souls stopped believing any denials from Cowell's mouth and started wondering when this freak show without pity would take the same door as Big Brother did.  The lack of courage to make choices by judges, the choosing of acts designed to annoy rather that help, the outright machinations behind the scenes that became ever more obvious, all combined to undermine what little credibility X factor  and BGT had.

BGT in particular has been sad, it has committed the double crime of destroying the classic and universally loved genres of comedy, juggling, animal acts, acrobatics and magic to name but a few and relegated them to the dustbin, preferring to promote alleged dance and cute or saccharine singers. Furthermore, the only demographic they seem to care about is that of the under 20's or even younger. If you own a telly, and you're over the age of 25, you can forget about hearing or seeing anything remotely interesting. As for the hard core geezers like me who at 50 are no longer of any interest to anybody in the mainstream top 40 world, I may as well exile myself to the Gold channels and listen to the pub acts who are a still out there grafting  and doing something that doesn't sound like it was produced in a factory by 90's R & B obsessed geneticists.

The other main problem with shows like this apart from the genres and antics, is the abuse of talent, regardless of actual ability. These poor bastards are deluded into thinking they are good, they are then milked of all potential for little or no money then discarded. Some of them are a bit brittle mentally to start and this only serves to further damage them. Hardly fair, hardly right, hardly legal . Meanwhile legitimate artists continue to pay dues to unions and guilds, try to get signed and on the whole get ignored by the mainstream, because they are not Olly Murs and they are not as easily led as an X factor or BGT lamb.

Strictly has it's own set of problems, it asked the question  how can we increase our viewer numbers? In answer they seem to have rightly decided to up the quality of their celebs to that of A list currently working people and iconic performers who may still have something to offer. They then went one step beyond (great tune that by the way)  and binned the few checks on the known problems with public voting , by reducing the value of the judges scores and doing away with the dance off. In addition to this, the culture of disrespect towards knowledge and quality and standards has spread like a cancer into the very fibre of Strictly. The judges are all over the place with thier scores, in particular Len and Alesha, how is that Gavin Henson AND Matt Baker could have both danced an 8? Len of course bemoans the lack of standards then ignores the massive faux pas when it suits him.  Our professional dancers are also to blame, now knowing they have to appeal to a less than knowledgeable public that votes less and less on talent and skill and more and more on sizzle and spectacular moves. That is when they're not outright being obtuse and voting for John Sergeant, that boxer from last year  or this year Gavin Henson or that dance disaster Ann Widdicombe. Strictly may retain ratings to some extent despite all the flaws, but that doesn't mean it's right to be happy when it's catering to the lowest common denominator. When did it become ok to accept the kind of behaviour that used to make Jeremy Kyle watchers socially unacceptable pond scum? When a judge, as last Saturday happened, was explaining why Scott was off that week, the crowd were beyond hostile, but Scott knew the criticism was right. When will the producers have the bollocks to tell the crowd to behave or they will be thrown out?

This unbridled rush to worship at the altar of the absolute correctness of anything the public votes for, no matter how ill advised or patently wrong, is what's destroying an otherwise interesting, entertaining and compelling format on both the Syco programmes and Strictly.

If we were to examine the shows that do offer genuine competition for amateurs or professionals that do what's marked on the tin, we find  Masterchef, the Great British Bake off and other such formats are successful if not as massively popular, precisely because, respected members of the profession in question  step in, guide, judge and teach. Enthusiasts the world over get to see the results as the programmes are sold to markets and speciality channels  that appreciate the content. Which brings me to the criticism that needs to be made the most. The BBC as a taxpayer supported institution cannot allow itself to lower the standards to such a point that we cannot differentiate it from ITV or whatever fresh hell Rupert Murdoch would have it become. Raymond Blanc's The Restaurant died a well deserved death because he allowed  in the 2nd to last series a pair of un reliable people to win and and in the last series , had contestants so poor  it was at times impossible to watch. But what really killed the show was crowning the most ineffectual poofs on planet earth as winners, one could not cook, the other could not run front of house and yet they won????. By way of apology, Raymond Blanc has come back with a few specials where he shows us some of his best recipes. You're forgiven Sir, but don't ever do that again please.

As for the private sector, in it's rush to embrace the lowest common denominator, they have alienated the vast majority of consumers and by extension the advertisers that go with them in favour of  telecoms who are eager to sell cheap phones and texting services to people who are barely wealthy enough to buy pot noodle or in fact in lots of cases, not allowed to vote in real elections yet . As and when they show some respect to hard working people with money and responsibility, their only rated shows won't be X factor and Corrie. The blatant ageism practised in particular by ITV completely ignores professionals, the middle class, the upper classes, intellectuals and anybody who has ever read a book or listened to music from before 2007. Bringing the BBC down to it's level won't save ITV, but it will ruin a perfectly good broadcaster.  Bottom line...adults of all tastes, education, cultures,colours and ages exist, they have money and they have a right the see themselves reflected on telly. 

If we want better behaved crowds, better informed public votes, a few things need to happen, regardless of musical taste or occupation targeted.

The public vote cannot and should not be the ultimate arbiter until such time as it is a genuine public vote representing the actual viewers tuning in. Both the voting methods and the manner in which the weight of viewership segments is distributed, need to be looked at. If you allow a narrow group of people to overpower the true results, you will always get the kind of situations where despite the vast majority of people liking the dog act or the acrobats, the one act  beloved by 14 year old girls with mobiles, will win as they alone are as obsessive and free to spend the time repeatedly texting in favour of their favourites.   The only people profiting from this are the telecoms, the promoters and the red tabs who feed on the frenzy. And even then, the public vote cannot be allowed to supersede the collective wisdom of people who genuinely know of what they speak and are in fact rewarding the most skilled performer  over the most sympathetic.

The opinion of judges who are drawn from the ranks of practised professionals in the industries in question, must be respected and given the weight that will guide the result towards crowning a winner who is most deserving on merit and getting rid of the worst of the lot early so the real competition can be all the hotter and interesting. Where is the motivation for person A to excel when person B merely has to make a joke or take their top off to stay in the competition? Where is the imperative for the professionals guiding the amateurs to stick to the required routines when they see colleagues taking liberties and getting away with it?

These programmes need to take measures early on to insure that participants are up the task, sufficiently grounded in whatever they are doing to at least not be entirely rubbish all the way through. How is this done you ask?

I would for example have two parts of Strictly. Part one where we have 40 or 50 prospects report to dance boot camp.... they would then be reduced to the final 16 through  a few rounds of basic dances and then we get on with the real series.  During the series, if two dancers then fall into the the bottom two, make them do a dance off and the judges should have the conviction of their beliefs and keep the better dancer. X Factor used to do that, except for the piss take people they accepted and the ringers they selected in advance. In the case of BGT where there are several categories, you really need to make more time and more room for the various types of acts or the programme really does become the wounded dying animal it has become. Then and only then will the public voting  format be anywhere near worth watching. Last thing... don't dumb down the criteria, regardless of if it's signing , modern dance or log rolling, how else will the public have any respect for performers and judges, if they aren't expected to know or appreciate the effort required to be the best whatever of that year?

I as an amateur cook for example appreciate and respect a programme that treats me like I should not accept 2nd best or just trying. A programme that takes me to the next level through the contestants, teaching me and making me aspire to be better than I already am is the template all such competitions should follow regardless of whether they choose to add an element of public voting or not. But if there is to be public voting, it should never be the kind of thing that corrupts a result to the point that the only people left watching are a bunch of bored teenagers with nothing better to do.

As Strictly and X factor come to a close and a number of new series are about to kick off, the industry needs to start thinking and acting in order to insure the current sad state of affairs does not continue. If the format of public voting "talent" shows is to survive, it will take the combined efforts of industry professionals and the networks to step away from the Holy Grail of "the public" is always right and restore some balance to the equation.

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