Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Gameshowification of Political Debate

By Adrian Shaughnessy

For the major commercial TV networks, the prospect of another month or so of political journalists debating the mathematical intricacies of the deficit does not make for the sort of steroid pumped schedule-filling TV that they want. Nor are the media sales teams energised at the prospect of a few more weeks of showing party political broadcasts – the ricin of TV ad sales.

What the TV people really want is the gladiatorial spectacle of power-hungry politicos fighting each other to the death. They know the modern TV audience wants political blood. TV viewers want to see ambitions thwarted and careers derailed. They want ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. What better way to provide this than adapt politics to the game show format?

No one does the game show better than ITV – masters of the Quiz Format and Lords of the Shiny Floor. And so when seven of our would-be leaders agreed to debate in public (The Leaders Debate, 8:00pm, Thursday 2 April 2015), it was fitting that they should do it on ITV – home of Mr & Mrs, The Price is Right and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This was electioneering with a Saturday night TV gloss.

Over seven million of us to tuned in to see our plucky contestants dressed and styled for primetime TV: men-of-the-people suits for the gents; department store tailoring for the ladies. Hair and make up was attended to in the established ‘mild embalming’ style of TV make-up departments. Amongst the female contestants, only Natalie from Australia failed to take the opportunity to introduce a bit of colour into her attire – on the other hand, Nicola from Scotland and Leanne from Wales seized the opportunity to inject a defiant note of celtic-fringe redness. Only Nigel from Kent’s wardrobe hinted at swagger – his ‘patriotism’ brashly semaphored by his pinstripe suit. You felt that he’d be happier still in his signature velvet collared overcoat. But the lights, Nigel – very hot under those lights.

The set design was ITV-lite. Restrained, tasteful even, with just the reflective qualities of the shiny floor to convey glamour – not to mention subtle reflections of the party political colours. There was even a hint of Kraftwerk with the streamlined lectern like-podiums. As the ITV website informs us, it was ‘a TV set not just with a bigger number of podiums than ever before for a UK election – but with colours which don’t scream “Labour”, “SNP” or “Green” or any of the seven hues of the political spectrum taking part.’

The website advised us in advance of the ‘little things’ to watch out for: ‘Yes, Farage is a few paces away from Cameron – and Miliband is too – but close up cameras will catch every twitch.’ Bad luck anyone hoping to pick up on any policy revelations – but there was plenty of twitching to occupy us.

The contestants were kept in check by a an efficient Quiz Mistress. More medical orderly than affable hostess, Julie Etchingham ruled with buttoned up rigour and curbed the male contestants appetite for shouting over each other.

Seven million people thought this was watchable television, so we can assume there will be more of the same. But let’s also apply game show rules and introduce penalties for failure: points deducted for an evasive answer and a lie get’s you booted off the show. That would be a ratings smash to gladden the heart of a TV mogul.

Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer based in London. He is a senior tutor in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art and a founding partner in Unit Editions a publishing company producing books on design and visual culture. Scratching the Surface, a collection of his journalism, has recently been published

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