How TV talent shows exploit a horrible human instinct – Alastair Stewart

Even shows like the Great British Bake Off are more about 'moment television' than talent, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Channel 4)Even shows like the Great British Bake Off are more about 'moment television' than talent, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Channel 4)
Even shows like the Great British Bake Off are more about 'moment television' than talent, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Channel 4)
We should stop watching reality TV talent shows that are the modern-day equivalent of Victorian freak shows, writes Alastair Stewart.

Where are the last of the great entertainers on weekend TV? What happened to the humour of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts or the style of Johnny Carson in the US? Over here, we mastered satire with the likes of Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You. Once upon a time, we had actual fun with the likes of The Generation Game and we could laugh without being cruel.

If anything is more indicative of our axial shift in our comedy, TV has become crueller but disguised as “family-friendly”. Reality competitions are a ghastly gawking fest. The likes of Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor are cases in point.

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It’s an excruciatingly thin line when joshing becomes national humiliation and cringeworthy bating. What better way to hit the headlines than to be the clown and the odd one out? Simon Cowell’s dismissive response when he saw Susan Boyle for the first time in 2009 is hard to watch now.

Even shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off are less about talent and more about how much salacious “moment television” can be created.

Poverty porn

The Apprentice, once a superior version to its US progenitor, is now rooted in who can make the biggest ridiculous business bluster and ego. Big Brother is a tawdry indulgence of baser urges. The Jeremy Kyle Show imitators are nothing more than poverty porn; a vile way for the middle classes to get a positivity boost about their own lives.

After several high-profile suicides of former contestants in reality shows, the question remains why we tolerate it. The Sun on Sunday conducted a report into the deaths of those linked to reality shows. It found out that 38 people from around the world had taken their own lives with a common denominator of a shared reality TV experience.

It can be dangerous to turn a possibly spurious link into a definitive explanation for such tragedies. But when these shows require psychological screening for participants and aftercare, all in the name of entertainment, the onus might be on the audience to switch off and say, “Not in our name”.

For all the innumerable reincarnations and reiterations of talent shows, they’re designed to promote failure – the awkward and out-of-place create a spectator-sport form of entertainment. Winning is less important. Even China has banned children from reality TV, stating that overnight fame is “too dangerous”.

Christians fed to the lions

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Is there a fighting spirit behind these shows? Inevitably, in some cases – but that’s not the bread and butter. Saccharine production and barrel-scraping editing are disguising voyeuristic cruelty.

There’s a horrible instinct at play that should be exposed. Christians were fed to lions as the crowd cheered, and here we are again. This isn’t Rocky; there are few stories of underdogs triumphing against the odds.

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These shows are on a par with Victorian freak shows and the human zoos that we think we’ve evolved past. We’re standing, mouth agape, and pointing.

These neo-penny gaffs that take advantage of people whose only crime is not being self-aware enough to know that they’re being exploited as entertainment. Now seems as good a time as any to reach across and turn the TV off.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart