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Participants in rigged phone-in votes and flawed viewer competitions deserve no sympathy. Everyone knows it’s a mug’s game.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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It’s difficult to come to a conclusion as to which lot are more risible: television companies who swindle viewers with phone-in competitions, or the people so stupid as to enter them.

It was announced this week that ITV has been fined a record £5.675million by Ofcom for abusing premium-rate phone services in viewer competitions. Its shows such as Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Gameshow Marathon and Soapstar Superstar were all found to have ‘serious editorial issues’.

A report also released by ITV revealed that The Catherine Tate Show was unfairly denied a prize at the 2005 British Comedy Awards. Although the comedienne Tate collected more votes for the People’s Choice Award, Ant and Dec were announced as the winners for their Saturday Night Takeaway programme (1).

Why anyone still bothers to vote in television award ceremonies for their favourite contestants on talent shows, or enters TV competitions is a mystery to me. It’s not as if their suspect nature hasn’t been exposed in recent months. The likes of BBC’s Sport Relief and even the children’s television show Blue Peter have been brought into disrepute. ITV’s X-Factor and GMTV have received similar censure. Richard and Judy on Channel Four and Brainteaser on Five have also been fined for unfairly taking money from their viewers (2).

One only has to observe the exponential increase in disclaimers that follow questions to appreciate that there might be something slightly dodgy going on. And even before these scandals were exposed you did suspect that in a show watched by millions, if you posed such questions as ‘What is the capital of England? Is it a) London b) Leeds or c) Leamington Spa?’, you might be up against a fair few other viewers in competition for the prize.

Altogether, the public are getting what they deserve for gambling so stupidly. This is not to say gambling is wrong in itself. There are few better sensations than picking the right horse. And as long as it doesn’t become a habit, the occasional visit to the bookies or the races can be quite fun. I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable at the manner in which betting has become so prevalent and acceptable in society (or the fact that the only two shops open on my high street on Sunday evening are the off-licence and the bookies), although in moderation there is little harm to it. But the whole point of betting on the gee-gees is that it involves engaging your brain and employing a bit of intellect, for instance, studying the form of the horse, its pedigree, the conditions and the nature of the racecourse (for the record, here’s a tip: owing to their unusual nature, you are more likely to correctly pick an outsider at Chester and Bangor).

TV gambling today epitomises a society in which gambling has become stripped of intellect and is partly or wholly based on luck and informed by superstition. Deal or No Deal and the National Lottery are two of the outstanding examples. These are programmes in which people talk about their ‘strategy’ or their ‘lucky numbers’, and Noel Edmonds witters on about ‘cosmic energy’, when in effect the only mental requisite is to be able to count to 22. It is amusing to notice that contestants are divided as to whether boxes have memories or not. ‘I’ve had four reds in a row so this has got to be a blue,’ say some; ‘I’ve been having a lot of reds in other shows so this is bound to be a red.’ They are of course, both wrong, as it matters not a single iota what your last colour was. Meanwhile those who enter multiple choice TV quizzes, it seems, need only the intelligence of a seven-year-old.

The boom in casinos and online bingo is further evidence of this development and reflects, in my opinion, that gambling has become passive and literally resigned to its fate. Those who do bother voting for X-Factor or Big Brother contestants are performing an act, that is to say, as Jean Baudrillard noted, they prefer indulging in consumerism rather than politics. They are not exercising power and choice, merely an illusion of choice. TV voting has become a replacement for, and parody of, political voting.

Perhaps it’s not that important after all. Telephone voters can only be losing around £1 for every vote that they cast, and betting modest amounts of money can be fun. As all gamblers will tell you, part of the reason for betting a few quid is to enjoy the thrill of the competition. Only amateurs and idiots bet solely with the intention of winning. And I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to sympathise with those who have lost money in TV competitions, because they should have realised long ago that it is a mug’s game.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) ITV hit with record £5.68m fine, BBC News, 8 May 2008

(2) At a glance: Shows in TV scandal, BBC News, 5 October 2007

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