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Phone Lines Are Now Closed: Giving the Viewer What They Want Or Repackaging What They Have?

Jun 4, 2008
The public talent show began humbly enough: when Opportunity Knocks bounded from radio to ITV in 1956 winners were selected by postal vote. Aahh, it all seems rather quaint now doesn't it? Of course, this lead, eventually, to votes being cast by premium phone lines, a system, some 25 years later, still in use.

Though the format of modern day programmes like X Factor or I'd Do Anything is similar to its televisual ancestors like Opp. Knocks or The Gong Show it differs in one vital aspect: which is, of course, that these shows offer a 'career' as a prize. The winners of X Factor are landed with recording contracts and album deals; in I'd Do Anything they are handed a lead role in a real West End show.

With the livelihoods of producers, directors and co-stars riding on the aptitude of the winners, one may legitimately find themselves wondering: what if the public get it wrong?

After all, the public record at choosing stars is less than, well, shall we say exemplary? Michelle McManus was dropped by her record company 19 Entertainment a year and a half after winning Pop Idol. Steve Brookstein on the other hand, lasted only eight months with Sony BMG after winning X Factor before he was dropped into obscurity.

Then, of course, there are different motives behind peoples' votes. The Eurovision Song Contest, for example, is rife with accusations of ethnic and political bias. At the close of this year's competition in Belgrade, the Russian act Dima Bilan emerged triumphant with 272 points. As many critics have pointed out though, Russia received the maximum 12 points from most of the former Soviet states. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia all chose the Russian entry as the winner. Even esteemed Eurovision pundit Terry Wogan remarked, as the result was being announced, that "This is no longer a music contest"

Herein, it seems, lies the problem: if you allow the public to choose, you must accept their choice, motives and all. You cannot expect a collective of millions of people to value the same things equally and, if they want to vote (or indeed, not vote) for certain competitors for political or social or ethnic reasons, then you cannot stop them.

And this problem is not just confined to popular culture. Carol Levine expands the conflict of art and democracy in her book Provoking Democracy: Why we Need the Arts. She describes art as 'democracy's friendly enemy' prodding and provoking its shortfalls. Democracy and art then, it would seem, may not be the cosiest of bedfellows.

Allowing the public to help mould their celebrities whether they be novelty variety acts or West End starlets is certainly very popular but is it very helpful? In this digital age of rocketing bandwith and countless content streaming services, our choice of entertainment has never been paralleled; but has this improved matters? With phone in talent shows and public contests we certainly have unfettered access, but whether that is access to great art or great spectacle is still up for debate.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here London Shows, Dirty Dancing and Joseph.
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