The politics of the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ glitterball

Light entertainment shows are at the heart of a public service media ‘strategic paradox’

Jay McGuiness and his professional partner Aliona Vilani perform a Pulp Fiction-themed jive. Photograph: BBC / Guy Levy

Jay McGuiness and his professional partner Aliona Vilani perform a Pulp Fiction-themed jive. Photograph: BBC / Guy Levy

 

In Donegal, it was reported that Saturday evening Mass attendances were suffering. Prayers were said. Alas, there is no God, and Daniel O’Donnell is out of Strictly Come Dancing. But as he waltzed, cha cha-ed and, um, American Smoothed his way around the dancefloor, he did the unthinkable. He made me warm to him.

Just how powerful is this show?

Strictly, the programme that sparked feverish hall bookings for dance classes and brought live dance shows to arena- sized venues, is a force in the television business. It is a stomping great paso doble masquerading as a breezy salsa.

Since its uncertain arrival in 2004, it has grown into a cash machine dressed in chiffon and lycra. Because the BBC makes the show in-house, it collects all the revenues from licensing the format around the world (where it is known more literally as Dancing with the Stars).

Almost 10 million people are lured each week into its glittery world, which is no mean feat in an era when mass audiences increasingly feel like anomalies. In recent years, whenever it has overlapped with Simon Cowell’s tired X Factor circus, it has tended to come off the better, to the extent that ITV, rather than seeking a head-to-head, now gets irritated with the BBC for scheduling a clash.

Some Irish viewers, their curiosity aroused by wee Daniel’s gallant participation, are new to the show, but Strictly has long sealed its place in the list of all-time great television ideas, building up a troupe of expert armchair fans.

Jay and Aliona’s Pulp Fiction-inspired jive may have been the highest scored dance in the 13th series to date, but was it better than Jill and Darren’s jive way back in series two? Online forums are available.

In Westminster, the debate is not whether the cool of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s charleston is unmatchable, but whether the BBC should be “allowed” to make programmes like Strictly in the first place.

A celebrity dancing competition has somehow become the silky, sparkly epicentre of a battle between the British government (siding with the position of the commercial media sector) and supporters of public service broadcasting (basically anyone moved to use the #SaveTheBBC hashtag).

It began when the Conservative MP John Whittingdale told the Guardian that it was “debatable” whether there was a public service argument for the BBC making Strictly, adding that the show should certainly not compete for viewers with the X Factor.

Whittingdale’s view took on a sudden significance this year after he was appointed culture secretary. It became apparent that the BBC would be fighting to maintain funding in a charter review process at a time when the minister in charge of media policy didn’t totally back its cruel habit of entertaining people.

“It will be hard to support any proposal that stops us finding the next Strictly, the next Bake Off, or – dare I say it – the next Top Gear,” BBC director-general Tony Hall wrote.

Whittingdale later clarified that he thought Strictly was an “admirable” example of where the BBC took a risk on a show that was not guaranteed to be a hit.

At the heart of the tension is what is known in some RTÉ circles as the “strategic paradox” of public service media, and it’s an issue on which the next director- general of RTÉ will have a nailed-down take.

It goes like this: Licence fee payers should get value for their money. When programmes become hugely popular, it clearly suggests more licence fee payers are being satisfied, at least for the period until the end credits roll.

But if a programme is a massive hit, why does it need a public subvention to finance it? Shouldn’t it be the preserve of the commercial sector, or at least be made by an independent producer?

Along the path to that one big Strictly glitterball, there will have been risks that didn’t pay off. For commercial companies, the consequences of flops may be more acute, and so they take fewer risks.

The result, in the case of Strictly versus X Factor, is a chasm of difference in the tenor of the shows. To the less discerning eye, they are both glitzy, saccharine light entertainment shows with contestants, judges, recaps and eliminations.

But it doesn’t take much channel-flicking to realise that where the X Factor is an exploitative, dream-crushing affair interrupted by occasional bellowing, Strictly consistently showcases skill and humour. It has the larger vocabulary.

It may be that eyebrow-raising thing, a commercial success for a public service broadcaster, but as long as the conditions that allow for its creation continue, the viewer wins.

As will Jay and Aliona.

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