Torin Douglas: Public turns off election and switches to reality TV

The General Election has failed to capture the public’s imagination in the same way that contestants on Big Brother have. Torin Douglas looks at who’s to blame

You can’t say the journalists and programme-makers haven’t tried to get people interested in this election. With The Guardian’s eight-page daily section and similar outpourings from other broadsheets, plus 24-hour coverage from Sky News, BBC News 24, ITN News and Radio 5 Live, not to mention the rash of news websites, never has there been so much election coverage for those who want it.

When Labour officials, refusing to put up ministers for Radio 4’s Today programme, urged listeners (via John Humphrys) to tune in to the party’s press conference, it was in the knowledge that, for the first time, ordinary members of the public could do just that – via the Web, or a 24-hour news channel.

Almost every visit the party leaders have made around the country has been beamed live, or pretty soon afterwards, to the watching dozens. Because the pictures can be fed back instantly, we get the benefit of them, too. And of course we can e-mail our friends straight away, to tell them William Hague or Tony Blair is at that moment in their town, if only they can be bothered to go and cheer or heckle. Interactive, or what?

Well it would be, if anyone other than journalists and politicians seemed to care. There’s been wall-to-wall coverage for those who want it – and many more alternative channels and publications for those who don’t, which in this election seems to have been the vast majority.

Never have so many trees laid down their trunks in vain to provide the unread newsprint of the past month. Never have so many TV and radio reporters, producers, camera crews and engineers striven to fill so many unheard and unseen hours of airtime. This is public service broadcasting and publishing on a grand scale, servicing a democratic process that most voters seem happy to ignore.

And so Big Brother 2 gets more viewers than the Ten O’Clock News or Tony Blair on the Question Time Special. Even Survivor gets more viewers.

We know why the election has failed to capture the public’s imagination. Everyone knows who’s going to win, and has done so since the start. Only when reality breaks through and an ordinary voter gets to harangue Tony Blair face to face, or have a punch-up with John Prescott has the campaign seemed to come alive.

But why has Survivor also failed to capture the imagination, despite ITV’s huge publicity campaign? The success of Popstars suggested the public’s appetite for real people attempting extraordinary things (as distinct from mundane things, as in Big Brother) was high – and the drafting in of Popstars’ producer “Nasty” Nigel Lythgoe suggested ITV was building on that experience.

The newspapers did all they could to help. Fleet’s Street’s finest (all, as it happens, young, female and photogenic) were flown out to the South Seas to try living on rattlesnakes and yams. The broadsheets were almost as keen as the tabloids: the Guardian confidently proclaimed that Survivor was guaranteed an audience of more than 10 million, and might even do as well as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

ITV insists it still might, pointing out that reality shows take time to build an audience, as viewers (and newspaper readers) get to know the format and the characters. The first series of Big Brother only really took off halfway through its run, when Nasty Nick emerged as the pantomime villain. Even Celebrity Big Brother – which only lasted a week – took several days to hook viewers. And in America the show took time to build.

The problem for ITV is that it’s now competing with Big Brother 2 in the reality stakes, and it seems that even the most election-weary viewer may not have room in their life for two groups of egotistical sex-maniacs confined in a small space.

The news that Survivors’ Charlotte had had sex with a fellow contestant and was asking for her husband’s forgiveness was a tabloid gift. Cue former lovers to come out of the woodwork (“Do YOU know any of the Survivors?” has been a tabloid plea for weeks), prompting the Sun headline “Charlotte the Harlot”.

Yet that storyline couldn’t compete with the flashing schoolteacher Penny, who happened to drop her towel coming out of the shower. Apparently, she caught the programme-makers napping so that the shots went out uncensored on Channel 4’s digital channel E4. But in case anyone hadn’t noticed (which on E4 in daytime is a pretty safe bet) Big Brother put out an apology so newspapers could run pictures of Penny with an E4 logo covering her embarrassment.

The follow-up this time was not with a husband or former lover but her headteacher, who said she was putting her job at risk. It prompted this memorable response from Nigel de Gruchy, head of the National Association of Schoolmasters & Union of Women Teachers, which could well be the quote of the year: “I would not advise any of our members to appear nude on television.”

So far none of the political candidates has bared all for the cameras – apart from Glenda Jackson who did it in a former life. But there’s still time.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC news

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