Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sorry - you didn't get through this time...

I’m catching up again. Since my last post, television’s use of premium phone lines has been high on the news agenda. Indeed the revelations have been rocking the nation since Richard and Judy’s Channel 4 show hit the headlines in February for its You Say We Pay scam.

Not only have Channel 4, GMTV and Five found themselves in trouble – corruption has been discovered deep in the core of public service broadcasting, providing a golden opportunity for organisations who are not fans of the BBC to make life awkward for Aunty.

In the righteous environment of radio phone-ins and newspaper comment columns, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that fakery is (and always has been) a fact of life in broadcasting. But it is. It’s the nature of the beast. That presenter might appear to be looking and smiling at you but she is actually reading an autocue. That undercover documentary might be uncovering extremist views allegedly expressed by preachers in a mosque, but it’s been edited.

Just as the Big Brother house has no function in life other than to be a setting for a TV show (demonstrating the concept of ‘reality television’ as an oxymoron), just as radio phone-in discussions themselves are astro-turfed by callers who fail to announce their allegiances to vested interests and lobby groups, so the phone-in competition constitutes an ephemeral, postmodern phenomenon, borne of the need of broadcasters to convince themselves that they have an audience but of little value to most audience members themselves.

I witnessed competition fakery myself back in the 70s. I was a guest on a music radio show whose part-time presenter only had an hour to set up his programme and check his mail to see if anyone had entered the previous week’s competition. It was a usually bit of promotion – the prize would be something like free tickets to a concert by some artist desperate to summon up an audience.

On this occasion, no-one had entered. But rather then explode the myth of broadcasting as one big happy communal activity with everyone giving the radio 100% attention, the presenter chose not to announce this impressive display of apathy. ‘Give me the name of a long road round here with lots of houses’, he asked me, off air. He then announced the winner of last week’s competition as a Mr Smith of that road (no door number, of course!).

I’d completely forgotten this incident until recently when the Blue Peter exposé hit the headlines – not the fake competitor but the news that the original Petra had died as a puppy and had been replaced by a look-alike. It brought home the illusory quality of television and radio as environments that provide perfect breeding grounds for mass deception. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d superglued the duck to the skateboard.

Of course, it becomes a more serious issue when people pay premium rates for phone-in competitions after the winners have already been decided. The only surprise for me when this started to dominate the news agenda was that there were any genuine winners at all. I’d always assumed that ‘Mrs Bloggs of Bletchley’ was a fictitious figure and that anyone who actually phoned a TV show in the middle of the night in the hope of winning £250 for recognising that France is a foreign country beginning with F deserves to be ripped off.

ITV boss, Michael Grade believes that viewers’ trust is the most precious commodity of television. As unlicensed digital broadcasting provides a platform for a ragbag of tastes and ideologies, integrity becomes even more vital for the bona fide broadcaster. A bit like religion, broadcasting only works if enough people have faith.

Richard and Judy    Channel 4    GMTV    Channel Five    BBC   
premium rate phone-in    Big Brother    astroturfing    Blue Peter     Michael Grade

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