the last few weeks have seen the spectre of viewer trust raise its head again, but unlike last year's Blue Peter name-the-cat debacle and Ant and Dec's Jiggygate affairs, recent events are far more opaque.
last time round, the cheating was obvious. judgments were delivered and calls were made that clearly ignored the voice of viewers. sanctions were duty handed out and much hand-wringing ensued. everyone learned their lesson, got it off their collective chests at Edinburgh, and everything was OK again, right?
well no actually. because the last few weeks have seen the voting viewer confidence undermined once more, again in the arena that is Saturday night event reality TV, and by both ITV and the BBC.
first up we had Dianagate courtesy of the X-factor. to cut a long story short she let rip at a bonfire party, was ill, the producers gave her a get out of jail free card and Laura went out. cue a call for the decision to be referred to Ofcom, a massive online petition to get Laura back in, and a mention in Parliament.
up next we had of course Sergeantgate on the BBC. one of the biggest stories of last week saw the big guy pull out saying "The trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition. Even for me that would be a joke too far." Sergeant hinted at the existence of pressure to go (from the BBC / judges / other contestants), The Daily Mail suggested that the reason was a P&O cruise that was beckoning, whilst Richard & Judy writing in the Express blamed his wife.
why does this matter? why is this getting a post? why can't we all just accept that it's just a TV show, get over it and all agree to get along? and most importantly why should brands have any beef with all this?
because it's either reality TV or its not - if Sergeant winning isn't an option (in his or anyone else's mind) he shouldn't be taking part in the first place; if we're going to ask the time and money of viewers to participate then they have to believe that their contribution will count.
because the principles of viewer interaction and contribution are too important to allow rules to be broken. because the principle of 'have your say and the majority will determine the outcome' has got to be seen to be upheld. and most of all because the difference between voting-viewer and contributer / co-creator is in name only...
in both the above cases we're asking people to engage with branded content. similarly in both cases the decision of producers - to allow Diana to stay and to allow John to go - took the ability to control the outcome out of the hands of viewers and into the hands of producers.
brands should tread carefully where Saturday night producers seemingly don't fear to tread. in a digital age that demands engagement and co-creation with brands thru media, brands (1) have to remain transparent and (2) have to be content for power - once devolved - to lie and remain with their consumers.
this is the reward for engagement; the quid pro quo for the time and energy of getting involved; consumer ROI if you like. time will tell what the fall-out is for X-Factor and Strictly - but brands that fail to learn the lessons will find it less easy to waltz off in to the sunset with their credibility intact.