The Joke is On the Viewers

Ant and Dec rigged their game shows, but the fans have left them off the hook

Nick Cohen

In the television industry, a look of awe comes over the faces of executives when you mention the names of Ant and Dec. It is not the pair’s undoubted appeal that impresses the bureaucrats. Although a few still relish the story of how the BBC let them go to ITV a decade ago after the mad belief that their popularity was on the decline overcame a light-entertainment grandee, most now take Anthony McPartlin’s and Declan Donnelly’s mastery of the medium for granted. Everyone agrees that they are the best performers since Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. In the opinion of their colleagues — if not your critic — they are better because they can present game shows, talent competitions and organise jokey stunts, as well as perform standard comedy routines.

No, what provokes wonder is how the apparently loveable pair of cheeky Geordies got away with ripping off their audience without their audience caring.

The great TV scandal of our time is meant to be Jonathan Ross bragging to Andrew Sachs about how Russell Brand had made love to his granddaughter as Brand sang down the line: 

“I’d like to apologise for these terrible attacks, Andrew Sachs. 

I’d like to show contrition to the max, Andrew Sachs. 

I’d like to create world peace, between the yellow, whites and blacks Andrew Sachs, Andrew Sachs. 

I said some things I didn’t of oughta, like I had sex with your granddaughter. 

But it was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual…”

True, Ross got away with it and hung on to his job, but the BBC still suffered. Public protests forced the controller of Radio 2 to resign, and the affair began a small but in my view important taxpayers’ revolt against the licence fee. Until Brand and Ross opened their mouths, the TV licence was one of those features of British public life which made no sense in theory but were accepted in practice. The prospect of a principled refusal to pay, if only by a few hundred people, willing to go court and accept the consequences of civil disobedience, will undermine the corporation’s legitimacy more effectively than all the splutterings of right-wing commentators.

Yet there is no revolt or protest against Ant and Dec. They will dominate the ITV schedules as we move towards Christmas, even though the scam they fronted was not directed against one man and his granddaughter but against thousands of gullible viewers who took their bonhomie as evidence of the honesty of their shows. 

I heard rumours about the reasons behind the fleecing of viewers a few months before the accountancy firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu released its investigation in 2007. Workers at ITV told me that the company was responding to years of disastrous management and the unstoppable rise of the BBC by organising as many premium-rate competitions as it could. Commissioning editors were basing the judgment on whether to approve a show on how many profitable phone-ins it could generate rather than its merits. As such, their behaviour struck me as crass rather than fraudulent.

But Deloitte taught me not to be so naïve. Between January 2003 and October 2006, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, produced by their private production company, had gone much further. It selected competition finalists before the telephone lines were closed — in other words, it allowed viewers to pay to join a competition they could not win. Even those in the competition were not chosen at random, Deloitte continued, but selected to appear on the show because they matched the producers’ requirements. Michael Grade, the boss of ITV at the time, insisted that no venality had taken place. But no one expected the viewers to agree. The losers should have resented losing money in rigged contests. More ought to have lost their illusions about television. The production company for the apparently ordinary stars seemed to be
offering ordinary folk a fair chance of a moment’s fame, while in fact they were vetting them. The affair recalled the quiz show scandals of the early years of American television, which ended with Congress investigating how producers fixed games so that popular contestants would keep winning prize money and stay on air. (Robert Redford made a film about the rigging, Quiz Show, which is still worth watching.) 

In America, the scandal changed the nature of television and high-paying quiz shows went off the air. In Britain, 50 years on, nothing happened. BBC people compare the insults heaped on Ross and Brand with indulgence shown to Ant and Dec, concluding that the rest of the media is out to get them. It is certainly true that even at liberal papers, editors who once supported the BBC now regard its dominance with alarm. But there is no evidence that media bias explains why viewers did not turn on Ant and Dec. On the contrary, almost as soon as the story broke, the viewers made it clear that they did not want to know about the dirt the media were offering. At the 2007 National Television Awards, voted on by the public, Ant and Dec shared the prize for most popular entertainment presenter, and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, the very show Deloitte indicted, won the most popular entertainment programme award. 

Their fans blocked out dissonant information which might spoil the picture of Ant and Dec as friends they could welcome into their homes, and did not speculate that if they were to behave in a similar manner they would not get off so lightly. The same is truer of Ross than protesting conservatives realise. His viewing figures have not suffered. His audience remains loyal, and from a commercial point of view the BBC’s decision to keep him on has been justified.

The lenience shown to all three provides further evidence of how celebrities have become the aristocrats of our age. The attention devoted to the nobility on the newspaper society pages of the early 20th century has so shifted to celebs that I doubt that, beyond the members of the Royal Family, 99 per cent of citizens could recognise an aristocrat today. But the change in interest is not a full measure of the change in society. A true aristocracy not only defends its privileges but also persuades others not to question them. Ant and Dec have proved that today’s aristos can abuse the gullible peasants, safe in the knowledge that the peasantry will not question their droit de

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