Monday, October 8, 2007

Real, please, not reality

At the start, I used to really like the Pop Idol/X Factor phenomenon. Yes, I was one of those who voted for Will Young, believing - rightly as it turned out - that Gareth Gates was too young to profit from the opportunity. Even last year, I was spellbound at Leona Lewis - surely the best voice ever to appear, let alone win, such a series.

But over the years, though, I've had my doubts. What started out as a simple talent contest was becoming far too scripted for my liking. And now, reports have it, my doubts have been confirmed; much of the seemingly spontaneous interactions may well have been plotted out beforehand or even re-run for the cameras.

From a psychologist's viewpoint, what particularly irks me is the way bad and good news is broken. Of course good television should build suspense. Of course it should show, and stir, emotion. But I object to the way the panel seemingly (for this may all, of course, be simply acting) plays with contestants when they are sending them home or putting them through to the next round.

"I hate to do this to you.... but you're through!"... "We have serious doubts about you... and you're going to the final"... "You've done so, so well... but now you're dumped." It's not just cruel, it's prime time cruel; the results are plain to see as the contestants sob their way through the ordeal. (Interestingly, I largely exonerate the infamous Simon Cowell from this - of all the judges he seems to tread the line of honest and clear feedback most ethically. If you're listening, Simon, try to persuade the producers to run the whole show to those standards...)

Actually, it's not the just the torture of contestants - some of them, this year, as young as 14 - that annoys me. It's the permission and approval that is given to such torture. In an age where school and workplace bullying is rife, this leading on and then pulling back is the worst kind of manipulation.

More, the contestants are expected to accept this, not to object to being manipulated, even to laugh at the joke (and at themselves`). And all this is horribly parallel to the way bullying victims are further tortured by their tormentors; the pain not only happens, one is told that it is not pain, and that one should simply bear it; "can't take a joke... sissy... what a wimp". If only one of the contestants, having been thus wound up, had the gall to object, to protest their treatment, to get angry instead of bursting into tears or hugging their oppressors.

If only, too, the producers had the courage to trust both judges and contestants to deliver compelling television without such manipulation. Real emotions - of the sort that human beings feel when something matters as much as X Factor success matters - would make good television on its own.

Genuine desire for success, genuine disappointment at failure, genuine commitment to their art and their own development - all of these unhyped - would surely make good television, as well as being a better role model for viewers.

More importantly, encouraging these genuine feelings in contestants would surely turn the winners into more mature and hence more successful stars.

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