Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Or Black?

Yesterday a second woman-beating rat crawled out of the rotting timbers of the sinking ship called Red Or Black? Are we surprised?

Well I, for one, am amazed. Having produced television entertainment most of my professional life, I am finding it hard to believe that Simon Cowell’s company could break a cardinal rule of the gameshow: that all participants must be thoroughly checked. “Backgrounds, psychs and meds”, we call them.

Background checks are simple and cheap. For less than £50, you can find out if someone has a record with the Criminal Records Bureau. Producers automatically exclude those who do because they don’t want to traumatise their victims, or give the press a scandal that might damage the reputation of the show. As the revelations of the last few days demonstrate, the damage tarnishes not just the programme, but the network itself.

I’m astonished that Nathan Hageman, who was awarded £1million at the end of the first episode, wasn’t weeded out at the first hurdle. He had been jailed for five years for beating up his ex-girlfriend, and his criminal record sits in public view for life. For £50, the broadcaster would have known not to put him on the screen at all, let alone make him a millionaire.

The “psych” test costs more, but is essential for any programme offering a big cash prize. Contestants sit for a good hour with a psychologist, who is tasked with uncovering emotional and mental flaws. This not only reassures the producer that the player can cope with the pressures of winning or losing, but also protects other contestants and programme staff. What if an aggrieved loser were to attack Ant and Dec? Anyone with the slightest hint of aggression is automatically excluded, which makes Mr Hageman’s appearance even more extraordinary. In America, the mere threat of violence whispered off-camera by a reality contestant would lead to instant disqualification.

In physical game shows or reality series like Big Brother, many other contestants fall at the medical. When I produced America’s Paradise Hotel, around 40% of the applicants were rejected at the “med” stage, most for sexually transmitted diseases – a sad indictment of our youth.

Meanwhile, as Cowell’s show’s ratings declined as fast as his reputation, derision and hostility have been thrown from all sides of the critical spectrum, even from the normally pliant industry trade press. In this week’s Broadcast magazine, the editor Lisa Campbell writes a blistering editorial headlined “How Cowell ran out of luck”. She lambasts the show: “the premise should have set alarm bells ringing at ITV about Cowell’s understanding of, and aptitude for, gameshows… try as they might, no amount of sob stories, weepy phone calls or stirring strings are going to make a viewer invest anything in a bunch of strangers whose choices display an utter lack of skill, effort or reasoning.”

Campbell’s view is echoed across the industry, and it’s easy to see why. For the format of Red Or Black? breaks another gameshow rule: that winners must be “worthy”.

Whether it’s a talent contest, a quiz, or an action gameshow, the prize must always be deserved. Contestants can demonstrate “worthiness” in a number of ways: by answering difficult questions, or performing complex or dangerous tasks; by bravely risking what they’ve won so far to gain more; or by generating sympathy from the viewers who follow them on their perilous journey.

Red or Black? offered none of these. Supposedly based on the story of Ashley Revell, a professional gambler from Kent, who bet all his possessions, including his clothes, on a single spin of the roulette wheel, these contestants invested nothing to win their prize. It is simply a game of greed and chance, nothing more. Thankfully the programme’s viewers, who are a lot cleverer than producers sometimes give them credit, saw right through it.

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