Sunday, May 01, 2011

What TV is always looking for - and it's not talent

I caught the last ten minutes of "Britain's Got Talent" last night. This featured a 12-year-old boy called Ronan Parke (left) who has clearly been identified by the producers as the winner of the competition. Before he began singing his mother said "I do hope people like him". After he'd finished the judges said "you don't need to bother going back to school" and "you're going to be a big star".

You don't have to be a child guidance counsellor to suspect that any one of those statements could do harm to a young mind. As I was watching the carefully contrived montage - cut to the proud parents, the audience apparently rising spontaneously to applaud mid-song, the boys' shocked and delighted expression - I thought, we're going to see this bit again, probably when it all goes wrong.

Earlier yesterday I was talking to a friend with thirty years experience in a senior capacity in television. His opinion on television and "real people" was simple: don't ever go on television unless you are prepared to be manipulated. That's because manipulation is what television, at any level, does. He also pointed out something that I'd always dimly sensed but never thought about - when producers are reviewing what footage they've got the only thing they're looking for is an edit point. They're not bothered about the sense of the story or its relationship with the truth - they're looking at how they can stitch that bit to this bit in a way that maximises the energy of the whole.

On the occasions I'm interviewed for television I always start by saying "tell me what you want me to say and I'll tell you whether I'll say it". This saves a great deal of time. I've also worked out that if you're going to be on BBC-1 you have to make your answers half the length they would be on BBC-2 which is in turn half the length they would be on BBC-4, which is half the length they would be on Radio 4. However even I've been amazed at how BBC-1 or ITV-1 will chop even the pithiest answer in half if they can find an edit point. That's because, as my friend points out, they're not attending at all to the sense of what you say. They're responding to the energy with which you say it and wondering how they can cut and paste it into their own little national grid.

The Ronan Parke item last night was not a performance. It was a little drama about a performance, as predetermined and carefully scripted as an episode of Glee. Talking of which, I don't think the competitors in shows like Britain's Got Talent should be lured there on false promises of musical stardom. I think they should be paid for their appearances much as actors would be. After all that's how they're used.


  1. Quite agree. Rank manipulation of an innocent

  2. One of the fathers of modern TV is Robert Thirkell. Along with Stephen Lambert, he pretty much invented the vocabulary, tone and 'beat' of Factual Entertainment. He's a consultant now, drafted in to fix many shows that are the staples of primetime, and is paid well for giving lectures explaining his C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T methodology. More on his website here:

  3. The French court system has recently determined that reality TV performers should indeed be treated as salaried staff on a TV production - €1400 a day.

    Perhaps they should get their names on the credits and join a union while they're at it?