And the winner of Britain’s Got Talent is . . .
Lisa W. Kelly / University of Glasgow
As we now all know, Susan Boyle dreamed a dream in her audition for Britain’s Got Talent only for it to quickly turn into a nightmare. Becoming a global phenomenon almost overnight and attracting intense media attention, she was in the end beaten to the top spot by dance troupe Diversity before being admitted to a clinic suffering from exhaustion. But SuBo (as she’s been dubbed by the tabloids) and Diversity are not the only winners and losers to have emerged from this latest series of Britain’s Got Talent. Gripping viewers around the world for eight weeks, the show has raised a number of important issues, including our prejudices as an audience in relation to age and appearance, the question of consent in talent shows regarding children and vulnerable contestants in particular, and the relationship between television and the internet, at a time when the former is suffering from an advertising downturn. This article offers a reflection on some of these concerns at the same time considering what exactly it is about the format that has captured the world’s imagination.
With the recent controversy and discussion surrounding Britain’s Got Talent, and indeed American Idol for that matter, it is easy to forget that talent shows have long been a staple of the television schedule, from The Original Amateur Hour and The Gong Show in the States to Opportunity Knocks and New Faces in the UK. In fact, Richard Dyer’s work on the appeal of light entertainment in general still holds up surprisingly well in relation to the way in which the viewing public has engaged with Britain’s Got Talent in particular. Suggesting that such forms of popular culture do not create false needs in the audience but instead offer some sort of response to people’s real needs (albeit an emotional rather than political response), Dyer put forward a model that compared the frustrations created by capitalism -scarcity/uneven distribution of wealth, work as alienation, lack of intensity and lack of trust in public life, as well as fragmentation and isolation – with the utopian feelings offered by light entertainment – abundance and glamour, energy/work and play united, drama and authenticity, and of course a sense of community or collective action.1 It seemed that the Britain’s Got Talent judges themselves could even have had Dyer in mind as they continually praised the dance acts for the hard work exhibited onstage and the sense of community spirit evoked, not to mention the displays of love and affection put forward by the family duos Stavros Flatley and 2 Grand. In a time of economic and political turmoil, these values seemed to especially chime with the wider public, or at least that’s what Piers Morgan kept telling us anyway.
However, in addition to all of these utopian feelings generated by the show, there are also the more uncomfortable aspects of the format. The prejudices exhibited by the judges and the audience when Susan Boyle walked on stage with the audacity to declare she aspired to be the next Elaine Paige. The subsequent vilification of the teenage audience member who became ‘Girl at 1.24’ on Facebook after rolling her eyes at Boyle’s statement (despite the fact that she wasn’t the only one to react in that manner and the entire segment was edited in such a way as to make it surprising that Boyle could actually sing). And, of course, the child performers who made it through to the live finals only to break down and cry due to nerves and failing to progress further in the competition (ten-year-olds Hollie Steele and Natalie Okri respectively).2 With Boyle’s added vulnerability due to the learning difficulties imposed on her by the press and the level of scrutiny she has come under, the grand finale of the show made for an uneasy rather than satisfying viewing experience.
By chance, I happened to be at a conference on Lifestyle TV the same weekend as the Britain’s Got Talent final where Lesley Blaker from the University of Salford delivered a very timely paper on the risks associated with ‘ordinary’ people participating in television programming.3 Drawing on an earlier study carried out by the Stirling Media Research Institute, Blaker discussed the problems surrounding ‘informed consent’ and the guidelines set out to protect programme contributors.4 Of course, as noted by Su Holmes in her analysis of quiz shows, the ‘ordinary’ people who appear on lifestyle, reality and light entertainment programming tend to be chosen precisely because they are ‘extraordinary’ in some way, a tension that is all too apparent in Britain’s Got Talent.5 There is also a tension at the heart of the concept of ‘informed consent’, in which participants are required to have knowledge of ‘(a) a progamme’s format, aims and objectives, (b) how their contribution will be used and (c) the potential consequences for them or for third parties of their taking part’.6 While this was no doubt difficult to secure in the pre-internet age, I would argue that the advent of 24-hour news, social networking sites and YouTube has made it almost impossible to have an understanding of the potential consequences that may occur following an appearance on a show (both as a contestant and even as an onlooker, as Susan Boyle and ‘Girl at 1.24’ have now found out). Moreover, this becomes even more problematic when children are involved, as highlighted in the 2001 report Consenting Children? by Messenger Davies and Mosdell.7 (Although again, this has always been a concern, as anyone familiar with the success and subsequent tragedy of another Scottish chanteuse, the ten-year-old Lena Zavaroni who appeared on Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s, will be all too aware.) While academics and the press debate the level of psychological assessment and support that television production companies should offer contestants, Hesmondhalgh and Baker have also pointed out the additional pressures placed on members of the production team as a result of the emotional labour involved in such programming.8 This should not be forgotten, especially when considered in relation to the levels of risk and precariousness already inherent in freelance television work.
I want to conclude with a quick consideration of the fate of ITV, the commercial broadcaster of Britain’s Got Talent. Faced with the worst advertising downturn in its history and the continuing problem of trying to fulfil the public service obligations placed on it, ITV has been experiencing a number of difficulties. Posting a pre-tax loss of £2.73bn last year, the broadcaster has axed 1,600 jobs since September and is cutting its £1bn programme budget by a quarter over the next two years.9 It would seem then that the global success of Britain’s Got Talent couldn’t have come at a better time. After all, with Susan Boyle’s audition clip being viewed over 100 million times on YouTube, James DuBern of Current TV describes it as ‘a TV marketer’s dream’.10 Yet, this is difficult to monetise, especially since ITV has failed to reach an agreement with the online video site over ad-sharing revenue. This refusal to agree to terms has been attributed to Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV and a man so steeped in British television tradition that he is unwilling or unable to embrace emerging new-media markets. Indeed, Grade has since stepped down from his position, leaving many within the industry to proclaim that ‘ITV need someone with vision [to replace him] and preferably not someone from traditional media’.11 This suggests that, in terms of its business focus, ITV must now make a paradigm shift if it is to succeed in the current media environment and capitalise on lucrative event programming such as Britain’s Got Talent. Otherwise, the only winner to emerge over the last eight weeks will, as ever, be Simon Cowell himself. The man now charged with making Susan Boyle’s dream finally become reality.
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- Richard Dyer, Light Entertainment (London: BFI, 1973); see also David Lusted, ‘The Popular Culture Debate and Light Entertainment on Television’ in Christine Geraghty and David Lusted (eds.) The Television Studies Book (London: Arnold, 1998), pp. 175-190. [↩]
- A number of youngsters took part in the live finals however and dealt with the experience admirably, including members of Diversity, Stavros Flatley and 2 Grand, as well as singer Shaheen Jafargholi and my own personal favourite, body popper Aidan Davis. [↩]
- Lesley Blaker, ‘Fame can be bad for you: Who looks after ‘ordinary’ contributors before, during and after taking part in lifestyle television programmes’ at The Big Reveal II: Lifestyle TV Conference, University of Brighton (30/05/09). [↩]
- The Stirling Media Research Institute, Consenting Adults? (2000). [↩]
- Su Holmes, The Quiz Show (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008) p. 124. [↩]
- Consenting Adults?, p. 7. [↩]
- Máire Messenger Davies and Nick Mosdell, Consenting Children?: The use of children in non-fiction television programmes (Cardiff University: 2001). [↩]
- David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker, ‘Creative Work and Emotional Labour in the Television Industry’ in Theory, Culture & Society (Vol. 25, Issue 7-8, 2008) pp. 97-118. [↩]
- Mark Sweney, ‘ITV held talks with BSkyB about moving digital channels to subscription’ in The Guardian (01/06/09). URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jun/01/itv-bskyb-pay-tv. [↩]
- Robin Parker and Robert Shepherd, ‘Switching on the YouTube viewers’ in Broadcast (22/04/09). URL: http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/switching-on-the-youtube-viewers/2021268.article. [↩]
- Ingrid Silver, Denton Wilde Sapte media partner, cited in Kate McMahon, ‘ITV has golden opportunity, says industry’ in Broadcast (24/04/09). URL: http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/news/multi-platform/news/itv-has-golden-opportunity-says-industry/2021692.article. [↩]