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‘We live in a democracy’

Updated Tuesday, 25th November 2008

Watch democracy at work - as the public kept voting to keep John Sergeant in Strictly Come Dancing

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John Sergeant Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC John Sergeant The retired BBC political editor John Sergeant’s resignation from the popular television programme Strictly Come Dancing was one of the top entertainment stories this week. John Sergeant was by all accounts not a very good dancer and was always rated poorly by the panel of expert judges who help to shape public opinion. By this criteria he should have been voted out but he remained on the show for 9 weeks – winning the popular vote week after week.

His resilience eventually became controversial and he withdrew from the competition on November 19. His resignation has ignited much discussion in the media.

The producers of the programme have supported Sergeant in his decision; contributors to blogs on this issue accuse the judges of forcing Sergeant to leave. They are disappointed at his departure but also at the failure to make the public vote count in shaping who continues forward in the programme. However, in his resignation speech Sergeant suggested that he had quit the programme of his own volition.

He claimed that we live in a democracy and so people will vote as they like, but that his continued presence on the programme was stretching the joke too far. This democratic nature of voting and the rejection of democracy seems to be at the heart of the question on many people’s lips   - did he quit or was he pushed?

The programme Strictly Come Dancing, has a top slot on BBC One on Saturday evenings. Strictly is a game show – competition and elimination of the weaker participant are the tools through which the narrative for the next episode is written. Some people will go on to be part of next week’s programme, others won’t. The basis for the competition is talent, produced with the help of professional dancers, judged by a panel of professional dancers. And the glamour, the sequins, the sets all make Strictly a visual treat for a Saturday night. It brings the glamour of the catwalk into autumn evenings. Hence, the programme advertises itself as offering sparkle, glitz, glamour and of being an extravaganza.

Strictly Come Dancing is also part of the later versions of reality show – a mixture of game show, talent show and glitzy entertainment show. At its heart, Strictly is a reality show - the sixteen contestants who are invited to participate in it are all scripted as ordinary with regard to their dancing skills. The lack of professional dancing skills is part of most people’s everyday reality. The contestants claim ordinariness in comparison to the professional dancers with whom they perform – these contestants could be us! Yet it is the lack of their ordinariness – their high profile (but not too high-profile as to threaten the ordinariness) presence on our screens, in sport, in the news that make them interesting.

It is also through their prominence in these other walks of life that they become part of our reality – we, the ordinary people already know them. They are extraordinary but not that extraordinary that we can not be made to see how they are like us – not professional dancers. This double play on ordinariness is an essential ingredient of Strictly Come Dancing’s appeal. The extraordinary people who participate in the programme are democratised through their lack of professional dancing skills.

This double-edged nature of ordinariness extends to the audience. The panel of judges adjudicates on the performance of each set of competitors. They provide knowledgeable critique of technical aspects of dance. They are clearly experts. Yet, their commentary does not determine the fate of the contestants – that is left to the audience. Moreover, in the age of technology, this is a mediated audience, not just those in the room at the time. The multiple sites where Strictly is debated - blog sites, newspaper articles, the conversations over dinner – means that like all programmes, its effects spill beyond the room in which it is conducted.

People who watch on television or through the Internet make up the bulk of the voters. But the same right to vote also extends to those who don’t watch the programme. As participants in this multiply mediated world, those who don’t watch too may decide to express their views by casting a vote. Moreover, there is no way of distinguishing between the votes of those who watch the programme and those who don’t. It is inherently democratic, giving everyone – indeed anyone – an equal chance to vote contestants off a programme.

Clearly the adjudication of talent is then not necessarily a part of deciding who goes forward from week-to-week. Yet, the choice between contestants is often seen as an act of discernment where ordinary viewers can make judgements on dance. It places members of the lay audience (and the not so-lay, there are bound to be professional dancers who are not part of the adjudicating panel, who too use technical knowledge to vote) in the position of technical judge. It suggests that we, the ordinary people can understand and appreciate dance, and we can even choose between performers. Technical knowledge is democratised and lay people are placed as technical experts.

Most of the time the programme trundles on with some degree of consensus between this form of technical knowledge and lay knowledge, between talent show and entertainment show, between judges and the voting public. The ordinariness of the contestants is slowly removed as the participants acquire technical skills. They become talented and rightful contenders for winning a talent show. They become extra-ordinarily able to dance. Or when that fails to happen there is some consensus between the views of the technical judges and the lay people – the contestants who fail to become extraordinarily talented are criticised by the judges and voted off the programme by the voting public. Judges shape public comment and eventually the two merge in their decisions.

Yet in the sixth episode of Strictly Come Dancing this pact came undone. The ordinary people repeatedly voted to keep John Sergeant on the programme despite his poor dancing skills. They voted for his affability, his entertainment value; they ignored his lack of talent. They voted for his ordinariness but also his extraordinariness. Gaffes seem to be part of John Sergeant’s personality – after all, his most memorable broadcast was a gaffe made at the time of the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. He was standing outside the doors of NO. 10 telling the nation that she would not come out to speak to the people and before he had finished, the camera focused on the Prime Minister coming out of the door to do just that.

The judges, on the other hand, performed their role as adjudicators of talent and criticised his performance. The mismatch between Strictly as entertainment show and Strictly as talent show came to the fore. There were questions raised about the nature of the programme as a talent show, given Sergeant’s continued survival, and eventually he resigned despite continuing to win the popular vote.

John Sergeant is right in stating that we live in a democracy but the discursive powers that shape that democracy that influence voting and that make some individuals make the decisions they take are clearly far more complex. The democratic nature of the country, the programme and the role of the voting public in shaping the reality of reality television remains unclear.





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