Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Screens are Alive with Competition - Peter Whittle in the Sunday Telegraph

Watching television last night, it occurred to me that Simon Cowell should be a national treasure. For those of you who insist on avoiding Saturday night TV and screaming tabloids, Mr Cowell is one of the judges of ITV’s talent show The X Factor. He’s regularly reviled for the supposedly heartless way in which he punctures the illusions of the hundreds of contestants who come before his panel, convinced of the god-given creativity which is going to take them to the top. He weathers the self-pitying tears of tuneless would-be entertainers. Sometimes he is even forced to square up to parents outraged by his dismissal of their off-spring’s unique gifts.

Cowell should be congratulated for his refusal to ingratiate and patronise, but he’s not alone. His is just one of the louder voices to emerge from television’s current love affair with all forms of contest, Whether it’s to be told ‘You’re Fired!’ by Alan Sugar in The Apprentice, or be proclaimed the heir to Julie Andrews by Andrew Lloyd Weber in How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?, thousands line up in the full glare of millions of viewers to be judged, not by a panel of specialists in empathy training, but by people who’ve made it to the top of their fields, and who’ve presumably earned the right to be listened to.

Of course, these TV contests are predictably condemned for being modish exercises in crass populist sadism, the equivalent of throwing Christians to lions. It can certainly look that way when you witness budding entrepreneurs reduced to wordless terror on Dragon’s Den. But the critics are missing the point.

Television has an odd way of reflecting our concerns and anxieties. After all, what accounts for the popularity of the endless stream of diet and make-over shows, from the worthy Honey, We’re Killing the Kids to the comical Laddette to Lady, if not our fears of creeping social breakdown? No, the fashion for ruthless competition on television represents one of the healthiest trends to emerge in broadcasting for decades – one which shows conclusively that all mustn’t, and shouldn’t, have prizes.

Cowell, Sugar and their fellow judges are providing a desperately needed outlet for our smothered tribal memory that to be the best is a good thing, that a desire to be inspired by the sight of talent rising to the top is perfectly natural. Suppressed for so long in the name of engineering a more ‘fulfilled’ society, it’s seeped out onto the box and hence right back into the centre of our lives.

And we should be grateful: in a time when, according to a report published this week by the think tank Civitas, a full 73% of us can, if we wish, justifiably wallow in official victim status, and when the politically correct promotion of self-esteem takes precedence over any activity which might hurt the feelings of others, such shows can claim to provide the very best in public servicing broadcasting – not in a form that would be immediately obvious to Lord Reith perhaps, but genuine nonetheless.

Perhaps these TV judges should be given control of our state education system. It’s here, after all, that the child-centric ethos of past decades has produced generations of kids who have been told that the necessity for striving, practise and mental self-discipline all come a poor second to their innate, infinite creativity. Anyone who has witnessed a softened-up sports day, or a classroom being encouraged to clap a fellow pupil simply for getting a right answer, realises that children are being sold down the river. It’s not all about feeling good about yourself. So, parents, don’t be afraid – for once, television might actually be setting a good example.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This piece is not only well-written and original, but addresses an issue of profound importance. It is often said that people receive by far the greatest quantity of praise in the first two or three years of life. That is because infants, unlike fully-functioning beings, require and value praise for what appear to be the smallest of achievements. Part of outgrowing infancy is the understanding that praise is granted only when truly deserved. That is what makes it meaningful.
Emma French