Monday, 6 December 2010

The unreality of TV shows

I'm not a fan of "reality TV", which has about as much basis in reality as a David Cameron original idea.

I really dislike these so-called talent shows, like The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Britain's Got Talent is marginally better as it at least allows for some degree of originality on the part of its contestants.

I don't mind the actual talent on display. I used to perform in competition myself (in a former life!) as a young Gaelic singer. It's no bad thing when capable people choose to use their gifts to entertain others.

It's what The X-Factor represents that I struggle with. It isn't a talent show. If I'm being polite I would describe it, more accurately, as a media circus. If I'm being more uncharitable, I might suggest it is little more than a cynically manipulative franchise of Simon Cowell's extensive business empire.

The best thing that can be said is that this is glorified, glamourised karaoke. That itself wouldn't be so intolerable if the performers could know...well, sing. In the last few years, however, The X-Factor has made celebrities of such untalented acts as Wagner Carrilho and the unspeakable Jedward.

What message does this send out? I'm not going to moralise too much, but my incredibly talented teenage niece, who once had aspirations of studying medicine, now simply wants to be "famous". Famous for what? "Oh, I don't know. Just famous." She's predictably addicted The X-Factor and its shallow glamour to the point that it has (temporarily, hopefully) distracted her from focusing her energies on more constructive interests. The X-Factor propagates the sub-Thatcherite philosophy that success is about finding a quick route to fame and riches. At least in Thatcher's era it was only the money that mattered.

Even the national media are obsessed with it. Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole attract more column inches than Barack Obama and Alex Salmond. The news no longer reports on things that actually affect people's lives but prefers to reinforce the shallow culture of celebrity worship by reporting the meaningless adventures of wannabes and "celebs". A celebrity class has emerged, fooling people into believing in a sham meritocracy where the problems of social immobility can be overcome by the power of the TV camera. In this context, The X-Factor is merely one more chapter in the national soap opera.

The X-Factor promises so much for so little. It promises glamour, fame, fortune and success to those who "have what it takes", not to mention millions for Simon Cowell. It's a British corruption of that phoney American Dream. So many are willing to buy into the myth, in spite of the obvious exploitation of vulnerable young people. Others simply find it a form of escapism, as Marx's maxim proves true: The X-Factor has replaced religion as a focal point for hope - it is "the opium of the masses; the heart of a heartless society."

You might wish to argue with that interpretation. What I think is beyond doubt is that this year we have witnessed some particularly mean-spiritedness from X-Factor organisers. Firstly, we had the controversy surrounding Gamu Nhengu whose absence from the final twelve appeared to owe more to political issues than Gamu's singing (unless the judges really were that stupid they couldn't recognise her obvious talent). Then there was Cheryl Cole's inexplicably judgemental and unprofessional outburst on live TV, when she confronted Wagner on things he had supposedly said to the tabloids, which only served to make her look petty and highlighted her own personal insecurities. There have been more allegations of "fixing", capped off by the show slapping a ban on Gamu's Christmas charity single - recorded to raise funds for Scottish children's charity Aberlour Child Care Trust - being publicised due to the terms of her X-Factor contract. Wonderful show of "Christmas spirit" there, Simon!

The last move from Simon Cowell might prove to be a huge PR mistake, and will surely make Gamu more likely to win the race for Christmas number one with Where Will You Sleep This Christmas? Already there has been widespread criticism of The X-Factor's stance, not least from our own Jo Swinson MP who has put down an EDM in parliament calling for fellow politicians to give publicity to the record.

At a time when footballers are often criticised for not living up to their status as "role models", what can be said about Simon Cowell and the example his greed, pettiness and egotism sets for X-Factor's young fans?

And I didn't even get onto his shameful determination to select the Christmas number one for the next 30 years.

Then there's Strictly Come Dancing. OK, so Strictly represents something completely different to The X-Factor. The judges actually know their stuff for starters. But it would be disingenuous to call this a talent show. Like I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here! (surely to be renamed I Used To Be A Celebrity - Get Me Back On TV!), Strictly provides yet another opportunity for the escapist public to honour the cult of celebrity.

Probably the worst thing that can be said about Strictly is its ability to rehabilitate the reputation of Ann Widdecombe, whose understanding of dancing is about as thorough as Tommy Sheridan's appreciation of co-operative politics. As one judge put it, she danced like "a dalek in drag". And yet the public liked her, voting for her in spite of her comical moves until she finally left in the quarter-finals.

"Widdy" went from retired right-wing MP, known for holding deeply intolerant and repugnant views, to national treasure in just a few short weeks. Quite a turnaround. So her bigoted attitudes towards gay people are forgotten, as are her irresponsibly divisive plans to deal with anti-social behaviour - and instead the public will remember her as a hopeless dancer on a popular TV show.

Perhaps, following her example, if Nick Clegg or Vince Cable seriously wants to improve their standing with the voting public, a few appearances on the upcoming Britain's Got Talent wouldn't go amiss. It would be a great publicity opportunity and - here's the best bit - they wouldn't even have to be any good!

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