In case you thought I was over-egging the TV cruelty thing…

In my last post, in the course of wondering why people are so horrible about The Great British Bake Off, I expressed dismay at the ubiquity of cruelty in TV. It occurs to me that might have seemed slightly over-egged: is TV culture really as nasty as I made out? Did I allow my judgement to become clouded by my distaste at one live blog? Was I wrong, in particular, in identifying a general appetite for cruelty among TV viewers?

I understand that some people enjoy the constructed reality of competition shows, where the ability to actually perform the task in hand is way down the list of requirements to do well. I understand that many, many people enjoy emotional cruelty, and take pleasure in seeing humiliating comeuppances meted out to popular hate figures.

That’s got to be over-egged, right? I mean, there’s no way people actually enjoy the cruelty? Surely it’s just that people enjoy the sense of jeopardy created by the competitive elements of the show, and you can’t have a high-stakes competition without some of the competitors seeing their hopes crushed. Yeah, that’s what it must be! Silly old Aethel getting his knickers in a twist over something that he’s imagined! He does have these “little moments”, doesn’t he? Sad, really…*

Well, come with me now to a recent article about the format changes in this series of The X Factor. Some background. I gather that it used to be the case that contestants had to wait until the Sunday results show to find out whether the public wanted them gone, but this series the producers have introduced a thing called a Flash Vote, which enables one lucky act to find out a day earlier that the public hates them. And this is what one apparently reasonable human being – who is paid to write about TV, and who I’m sure believes himself to be fundamentally a good person – had to say about the development:

X Factor makes such a fuss about how brutal and immediate the Flash Vote is, but the punishment for losing it genuinely couldn’t be any less brutal or immediate. Whoever loses a Flash Vote should be eliminated on the spot, or attacked by dogs, or strapped to an ejector seat and pinged through the ceiling. Let’s make one of those happen next week, please.

The second half of that paragraph is a joke, of course. The author doesn’t actually want to see contestants attacked by dogs or ejected through the ceiling (although, give it time – maybe by 2020…). But the first half, so far as I can tell, is not a joke: that bit is meant, sincerely.

You’ll notice that this is an argument based round the idea that losing contestants should be punished. It’s not enough that they should lose the vote and see their chances of pop stardom wilt as a result – no they have actually to be punished for daring to dream. That idea is flatly accepted as something that’s just routine, assumed; the notion that contestants disliked by the public must be punished is so natural and obvious that it’s not even up for discussion.

If you’re like me, you might find that gratuitously cruel already. You might find yourself wondering why losing contestants can’t be treated with dignity and their achievements, such as they were, remembered with affection instead. But, as I say, in these circles the idea that losers deserve to be punished is a given. The author isn’t writing that paragraph to tell us that he’s uncomfortable with cruelty, or even to remind us that being uncomfortable with cruelty is a possibility.

No, the reason for writing is to lament that the current level of punishment is insufficient. It needs to be made more brutal. And also more immediate – in order, presumably, that the experience will be even more shocking, traumatic and disorientating for the losing competitor. Apparently even the tiniest possibility that someone might leave feeling slightly good cannot be allowed.

These, if you were wondering, were suggestions for what the producers need to do if they want to go back to beating Strictly Come Dancing in the ratings. So that’s a sign, isn’t it, of how ubiquitous cruelty has become in TV culture? Not only is punishment for failure taken as being par for the course, but dialling up the severity of the punishment is the prescription for boosting ratings. Cruelty sells, and extra cruelty sells bigger.

This is what Bake Off – that festival of faintly smug middle-class niceness – is a bulwark against, and this is why it’s precious. Not because it’s smug and middle-class, but because it still allows for the possibility that there might be some of us who are repulsed by cruelty, and cannot find it entertaining. Because it makes the point that a TV show doesn’t have to be cruel to be popular, and that sometimes it can be nice to be nice.

(I still can’t break my habit of trying to be fair, so I’ll draw attention here to another recent article written by the same author, arguing that The Great British Bake Off is perfect as it stands, and that they shouldn’t feel the need to mess with the format just because the show is moving to BBC1 for the next series. So, you know, he’s not a sadistic monster; he’s capable of recognising that there ‘isn’t a shred of malice to be found in’ Bake Off, and of responding positively to it. It’s just that in his comments on X Factor he’s a bellwether for the general attitude towards cruelty in telly culture. That’s the point I was trying to make.)

* – For the record, I haven’t actually been contacted by anyone saying anything like this; on the contrary, the only feedback I’ve had has come in the form of automated emails telling me that a couple of people ‘liked’ the post, which was kind of them. But I imagine a number of people have thought something along these lines, nonetheless.**

** – Indulging in withering self-criticism without any good reason? Rehearsing scenarios in which everyone thinks poorly of me, even when the available evidence suggests people are either indifferent or appreciative? That’ll be the depression talking. But I’m aware of the cognitive distortion, so that’ll make it magically all better, or something.

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