Was I the only one to feel uncomfortable watching the X-Factor evictions last night? Of course it is all part of the format but at what point do we stop using the misery of others for our own entertainment? Do TV producers have boundaries when it comes to exploiting members of the public on television?
There are boundaries as imposed by the regulatory body Ofcom. There is no doubt that all contributors gave ‘informed consent’ – that is they fully understood the nature of the programme, the process of evictions and so on. It’s a competition. Therefore most contestants are going to lose.
There was controversy when 16 year old Luke Lucas broke down in tears when he lost out at the judge’s house. Children over 16 are considered old enough to give ‘informed consent’*. Under that age someone over 18 must give that permission. Luke Luas looked confident enough at the first auditions. His parents would have been backing him all the way. But how can anyone not involved in television production really understand the pressure a 16 year old will feel in those circumstances?
In relation to the involvement of people under 18 in programmes Ofcom rules state:
- Due care must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under eighteen who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes. This is irrespective of any consent given by the participant or by a parent, guardian or other person over the age of eighteen in loco parentis.
- People under eighteen must not be caused unnecessary distress or anxiety by their involvement in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes.
And apart from the youngsters, why was 54 year old widow Ceri Rees put forward to the show again having been ‘used’ on X-Factor in previous series for our entertainment? Ceri is obviously not winning material. She was there purely for us to laugh at. Gary Barlow went too far sitting on the stage going through her handbag – it was public humiliation. Why do TV producers do it? Because we watch, and we talk about contestants like Ceri and Luke and because the tabloids will talk about them thus providing more publicity.
Having a sense of responsibility to people we involve in our television programmes is crucial and it is not just a case of conforming to the rules. Ticking boxes is easy. Employing a psychologist to talk to distressed contributors is easy and it means the producers have an argument should anyone complain, “we ensured they had professional help.”
It is also easy – and inevitable – that members of a production team will adopt ‘blinkered’ thinking when the pressure is on – and the pressure is always on. They will see only the end result the producers want and insist on. They must get the ‘money shot’ – it may not be the most expensive shot but it must be the ‘selling point’ of the show. And tears are all too often deemed to be the goal in many a television show. How many trailers and promos have you seen that involve someone in tears?
If you are working in television don’t lose sight of the fact that you are dealing with human beings with all those human sensitivities. Make the best show that you can, by all means get to the heart of the matter, no harm in evoking emotions when they form such a crucial part of all our lives. I’ve made self-help strands and I’ll confess right now that I know viewers will bond with the subject once the tears flow, or when they openly admit to their fears and failings. Viewers will bond with the contributor because they recognise the feelings and they will identify with them.
In that kind of programming we are exploring emotions and the tears are part of the process which hopefully ends with some kind of solution or at least help for the contributor on-screen. I would argue this is helpful to the viewers.
The tears of a young person whose dreams have been crushed so publicly – are they really helpful to anyone? Do we really find that entertaining? I’m not entirely sure….
And for those who want the media lesson:
*’Informed Consent’ is an important part of the Ofcom codes that any aspiring TV producer needs to understand. It simply means that you have told the contributors quite clearly what the programme involves and how their contribution is likely to included. You are not allowed to fudge the details just because you are afraid they’ll refuse to get involved! If you’ve covered the following with your contributor you are deemed to have established such consent.
- be told the nature and purpose of the programme, what the programme is about and be given a clear explanation of why they were asked to contribute and when (if known) and where it is likely to be first broadcast;
- be told what kind of contribution they are expected to make, for example live, pre-recorded, interview, discussion, edited, unedited, etc.;
- be informed about the areas of questioning and, wherever possible, the nature of other likely contributions;
- be made aware of any significant changes to the programme as it develops which might reasonably affect their original consent to participate, and which might cause material unfairness;
- be told the nature of their contractual rights and obligations and those of the programme maker and broadcaster in relation to their contribution; and
- be given clear information, if offered an opportunity to preview the programme, about whether they will be able to effect any changes to it.
And if you’re studying television production and want to know more about ‘informed consent’ and other such Ofcom regulations then you can check Ofcom’s own website: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/broadcasting/broadcast-codes/broadcast-code/
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