Human beings can’t help themselves when it comes to getting a kick of out of being perceived as important. It massages our egos and there is the fuzzy, warm feeling of being needed and knowing that our opinion counts and matters. A general feeling of being important is not necessarily a bad thing but a problem arises when our opinions are more about the money they generate rather than the substance. I’m ranting this week over the incessant and ridiculous amount of times that we, as a general public, are being asked to text or phone vote the outcome of various TV shows. At the beginning it was fun and although some shows are still shrouded in subtlety others practically scream ‘we really just want your money!’ Often the strongest contender comes out on top but at other times it is just a popularity contest or down to who has canvassed hardest. In some cases there are experts whittling down the choices and then the final decision is left up to us, the great unwashed. With little or no expertise necessary, as long as you have fingers that can text or phone, your opinion counts. The reality is that your hard earned money counts and it helps the programme makers boost profits. Tens of thousands of people often vote at an average of 60 cent per text and sometimes more. This means a lot of profit for the phone companies and a generous cut for the production companies. The sooner we realise that our opinion is considered a necessary evil to finance these shows, the better. Some try and soften it with the charity façade, saying that a portion of the proceeds will be donated. I’m sure a ‘portion’ will be donated, but what about the rest?

The idea for the public vote can be traced back to one of the original high profile TV talent shows, Opportunity Knocks, presented by Hughie Green back in the 60s and 70s. However this was a genuine attempt to involve the public and not a moneymaking venture. The winning acts on Opportunity Knocks were decided by the viewing public by a postal vote and the winner was announced the following week. It’s hard to believe that people actually took the time to choose a winner, envelope it up, buy a stamp and post it. (Do tell your children and teenagers this and watch them fall around laughing!) When it was revived in the late 1980s, technology had moved on and the winner was chosen by a telephone vote with no one but the telephone companies making money. Text and premium lines with shared profits were still very much a thing of the future. Although the show did produce several talented acts, because it was a public vote sometimes the novelty acts came out on top, with no regard given to longevity or career. On one occasion a very young Su Pollard, who subsequently found fame in the sit com Hi-de-Hi, was beaten into second place by a singing dog! A similar show called New Faces had a panel of judges giving their opinion and then the studio audience was asked to vote on the winner. Neither of these shows was about exploiting the public.

Today, most of the elements of both Opportunity Knocks and New Faces are visible on Pop Idol, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing and all the rest with the added cynical twist of a money making vote. We borrowed the format here in Ireland for You’re A Star, Jigs and Reels and others. Of course it’s not just talent shows that employ such awful tactics as we are also asked to choose on reality shows such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I can’t say it loudly enough but it really is all about the money.

The most recent insult came via TV3’s Miss Universe Ireland show on Sunday night last. You won’t be surprised to find that I didn’t tune in for the whole show and would have missed it completely had I not been flicking around towards the end of it. Just as I tuned in, it was near the end and they were down to the final five candidates as chosen by the expert panel of judges, then it was ‘over to you, the public’ time. In order for us to assess personality, each girl was asked a short question and gave, roughly, a thirty second answer. That paltry excuse for a display of any intellect or human spark was then to be coupled with the visual and we could choose the winner. We’re so privileged. The people on the studio panel of judges all had some connection to the fashion, beauty or media world and were amply qualified to pick a winner. If they were deemed suitable to get it down to the final five having spent time interviewing the candidates and watching them through rehearsals and the actual show, why couldn’t they have just finished the job? Obviously there was no money to be gouged out of the viewing public that way.

Asking the public to vote has become the biggest con in television today. I have yet to see a show where they say ‘free text’ or ‘free phone’ your vote. Of course that’s not to say it hasn’t happened and if you know of one please let me know. The television text and phone competitions have also got out of hand, but at least you have a chance of getting something back albeit a very slim one and the prize has to be paid for somehow. Do note, however, how simple the questions are with a very obvious multiple choice answer. This inevitably means more people know the answer and in turn will enter therefore rapidly decreasing the probability of you wining, which was pretty low to begin with. But when it comes to voting for individuals on talent or reality shows it can often be an emotional decision. People tend to want to vote for their relatives or someone they know or indeed just someone that represents their county. Instead of the presenters asking the ‘general public’ to vote they should appeal honestly to the ‘general fools’, because that’s what we are for playing along with this game.

My whinging isn’t going to stop it and I have no doubt I too will partake in the ‘text vote’ for something or someone in the future, but it really is beginning to bug me. Most of these shows are supposedly family entertainment and therefore many of the votes are coming from kids who are more than capable of texting fast but have little or no regard for the cost. It is nothing short of exploitation and yet we all fall for it again and again. They really have us over a barrel and claim that it is all in the name of entertainment, interactivity and choice. It is none of the above; it is all about the money and while they laugh their way to the bank we are left crying over stiff phone bills and spent phone credit. Bah Humbug!