In TV betting circles there is much debate surrounding ‘The Dark Arts’. These are the methods adopted by The Powers That Be (TPTB) to achieve a favoured outcome by using every subtle tool in their armoury, all to sway the public vote.
As someone who successfully trades the TV betting markets for a living, my eye is inexorably drawn to the nuances in TV presentations that either subtly or unsubtly guide the public vote. In The X Factor you could write a vast volume on the techniques Syco uses to deflate or inflate a contestant’s vote.
With over ten years of TV analysis under my belt, interpreting the edit is pivotal to my trading success. There is sometimes a danger of reading too much into things – seeing subliminals that are maybe unintended – but experience tells me never to underestimate the wiles of TV executives and the clever powers of suggestion used to manipulate the viewer.
The techniques are varied according to the show and can also be seen at play in the Eurovision Song Contest world – observed across countless national finals and also witnessed in the three big shows the EBU has a hand in come May. More on that later. To get a handle on things we need to start by taking a look at some of the UK’s biggest reality TV shows.
Defining The X Factor
We have just had the Finals of the 2016 editions of Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor in the UK. Both provide good examples of the techniques that can be used and their impact. Let’s start with The X-Factor.
The jury is still out on exactly what Syco was aiming for in this year’s final. Matt Terry ended up winning The X-Factor on the Sunday night, but arguably this was more by accident than design. Matt did not enjoy a single pimp slot series-long (the pimp slot being the last position in the running order and a clear signpost of a producer’s favourite) and was described by Simon Cowell in the semi-final as a ‘butterless sandwich’ during a damning critique intended to deflate Matt’s public vote.
Cowell, who has learnt a thing or two about the powers of suggestion from hypnotist friend Paul McKenna, has established himself as the high priest of Jedi mind tricks over the years and this was not the sort of treatment you might expect if Matt Terry was his favoured winner, also known in betting circles as The Chosen One (TCO).
Performing second on the Saturday show of the X-Factor final, not being given the ideal song choice in Jess Glynne’s ’Take Me Home’, and receiving largely lukewarm praise, the signs were producers favoured a Five After Midnight/Saara Aalto head-to-head for the Sunday show… only for Nicole Scherzinger to salvage Matt’s night in a duet of ‘Purple Rain’ with Five After Midnight making a dog’s dinner of their medley with Louisa Johnson and Clean Bandit performing ‘Tears’.
Five After Midnight ended up eliminated in third place and Matt was then able to overtake Saara’s voting lead on the Sunday, partly aided by a vote transference from Five After Midnight’s followers who would tend to break towards the comfortable to look at Matt Terry instead of the kooky Finn. An example perhaps of how, despite a show’s best efforts, The Dark Arts cannot always exert absolute control over the outcome.
Strictly’s Ten From Len
In this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, you would have to conclude the BBC got the winner it wanted in Ore Oduba based on the methods it used to push him. This would be my analysis of key moments throughout the live final where the score was going to be 100% public, but the judges could still pass comments:
‘Who could ask for anything more?’ says Strictly head judge Len Goodman, standing to applaud Ore after his showdance. A 40 out of 40 follows. It is a massive Ore push conveying the message to viewers that this guy deserves to win.
After Ore’s final dance, the jive, Len goes on to tell viewers, ‘It’s people like you who give me the most pleasure on Strictly. People with no dance background at all… Ore, you are the spirit of Strictly.’ Another 40/40 is awarded. This is an even more powerful endorsement.
Strictly loves to point out that the judges’ comments and scores do not count in the final. They are for ‘guidance’ only. ‘It is up to you at home to decide your winner,’ Claudia Winkleman tells viewers. And yet, it then proceeds to influence the public vote as best it can.
Ore enjoys 39 for his opening American Smooth, a routine chosen by the judges – an audience-friendly number to ’Singin’ In The Rain’. This is where The Dark Acts get very clever. Louise Redknapp follows but is given one of her weakest dances to reprise – the Cha Cha Cha set to Flashdance’s ‘What A Feeling’ with Louise outfitted in leotard and knee-length boots. This is an immediate red flag of The Dark Arts potentially working against Louise. A choice of Viennese waltz would have been much more viewer-friendly: lyrical and dreamy, set to ‘Hallelujah’.
Bruno Tonioli accentuates the ’saucy’ nature of Louise’s routine. Len describes it as ‘red hot’, insinuating a sexual context. These are Further red flags… they are not voter-friendly descriptions for Strictly’s audience – a bastion of prudish middle England. Louise had won voting favour throughout the series being an everywoman, not a sexy vamp.
Craig Revel Horwood informs the audience he performed it once as his drag act. A partly distracting and partly mocking comment. ‘It’s been a strong competition this year and you are in the final,’ says Darcey Bussell. Yet another red flag. The clear inference of her words: well done for making it to the final, Louise. You are a deserved finalist, not a deserved winner.
After their qualified praise, they went on to give Louise 38. All in all, it was thoroughly deflating for her, and intentionally so following Ore’s 39 and the plaudits he received. Unbeknown to Louise they were digging a hole for her. The Ore ramp up towards the public was being mirrored by a subtle Louise deramp. It suggests producers saw Louise as a bigger threat to Ore in the upcoming public vote than Danny Mac, who had fallen into the dance-off in the previous week’s semi-final with a poor public vote.
Why did the BBC’s production team want Ore as its ideal winner? Well, it had to fend off media criticism earlier in the series that its viewers were racist after the early exits of Melvin Odoom, Tameka Empson and Naga Munchetty. And Ore was almost a perfect photofit for its overtly PC, ethnically diverse modus operandi, not to mention the fact he also fitted the show’s narrative as an absolute beginner at series start. He was, to quote Len, ‘the spirit of Strictly’.
The Historical Case Study
You only need to watch an episode of Channel 4’s Gogglebox to see how The Dark Arts succeed in swaying the sentiment of viewers sat at home. Having become so attuned to the methods TV producers use, it never ceases to amaze quite how malleable, and dare I say, gullible, viewers are to their transparent machinations.
Susan Boyle’s audition on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, which ended up going viral, is one of the most confected pieces of Reality TV viewing you will ever see. It’s a textbook example of how to build a contestant into a sympathetic character the audience will take to their hearts, and most importantly for Syco, buy her music from them in future.
Let’s get this straight. Syco screens all its auditonees, and producers have worked it all out beforehand. It loves to lull viewers into thinking auditions are spontaneous affairs but there is an extensive process of singing in front of producer panels prior to the act going up in front of the panel as seen on ITV. And the backstage editing is a big part of the set up when the audition programs are aired.
They know already if the auditionee is a deluded wannabe lined up to be mocked or a talented performer poised to be lauded. Even better for Syco, TV gold dust in fact, is a Susan Boyle: someone they can tee up to be a laughing stock, only for her to surprise and turn audience preconceptions on their head.
In the pre-audition interview backstage she informs the producers she lives alone with her cat, she’s a spinster and has never been kissed, setting her up as an eccentric loner. The look of bemusement from Cowell when she tells the panel she is 47 and goes into her little dance conveys the message to viewers, ‘This woman is clearly a loon’. We should all be laughing at this strange woman – Ant & Dec, stage left, helpfully encourage this reaction in the viewer too.
And then the ‘unexpected’ pay off arrives when she has the voice of an angel. There is an open-mouthed look from Amanda Holden, Ant points his finger at the camera and tells viewers, in his Geordie accent: ‘Yas didn’t expect that did ya, did ya, no’. Actually Mr McPartlin, knowing how Syco operates, the whole thing was glaringly obvious, dear boy.
Piers Morgan: ‘That was the biggest surprise I’ve had in three years of this show… When you said you want to be the next Elaine Paige, we were all laughing at you. No one is laughing now ’. As he says all this, Piers looks down at his pre-written notes. This tells us everything about Syco’s Dark Arts; the chicanery at work here which passes Joe Public by and cunningly draws them in.
Amanda: ‘I know everybody was against you. I honestly think we were all being very cynical and that’s the biggest wake-up call ever.’
The entire segment from start to finish is heavily manufactured, forcefully telling viewers how they should be reacting throughout. It is purpose-built, intended to create good will and fashion Susan Boyle’s brand as an unlikely, loveable underdog.
Everything the panel says, every reaction they, the studio audience, and Ant & Dec have reinforces how viewers should be feeling. And we see shades of this going on week in, week out on X Factor. Susan Boyle didn’t win the final but no matter. It was job done for Syco as it helped turn her into a multi-million selling recording artist.
Eurovision And The Dark Arts
Of course The Dark Arts carry through to the Eurovision Song Contest. You may not understand the language watching National Finals across Europe but you can still identify the tricks of the trade TV producers use in seeking their preferred outcome.
A technique favoured by RTVE in Spain is to draft in a vociferous studio audience who roar their support for the favoured act or song. It took no chances with ‘Quedato Conmigo’ in 2012 as it was greeted by cheers throughout, the studio audience heard chanting the song’s name. This acted as an ‘x marks the spot’ for viewers, telling them this was the most worthy winner, and worked the oracle with the track earning a whopping 56 percent of the televote, and being selected for Pastora Soler to sing in Baku.
We often see the tried and tested method of a favoured act landing the pimp slot, or a late running order slot. In Norway last year, Agnete was awarded the pimp slot with ‘Icebreaker’ in the televote-only Melodi Grand Prix 2016 and duly strolled to an easy victory polling nearly double the votes of runner-up Freddy Kalas.
Watching Dansk Melodi Grand Prix 2012, I recall backing Soluna Samay for the win with ’Should’ve Known Better’. She was drawn ninth out of ten runners, but watching the show it seemed Christian Brons & Patrik Isaksson were more favoured performing ‘Venter’ last. One thing, however, producers have no control over is live vocal performance and it was with a sense of schadenfreude I watched them produce an off-key effort.
The Scandi countries have these techniques down to a tee. They tend to back-load their competitions with favoured acts. Sweden has a good recent record of placing songs that win Melodifestivalen, and go on to triumph at Eurovision, in the pimp slot of their respective heats.
In the first heat in 2012, Loreen performed last with ‘Euphoria’. Mans Zelmerlow’s ‘Heroes’ also enjoyed the pimp slot in the last semi-final in 2015. Clearly there is an element of SVT favouring the acts it perceives as the strongest ones in the competition. In TV production terms saving the best until last makes sense to keep the audience watching but it also ensures a built-in advantage. A pimp-slotted song has the chance to steal the show and seize the voting initiative with vote lines invariably opening shortly after the performance. It is a simple recency effect.
It becomes much more of a Dark Art when aiding a favoured act with a late running order slot while putting away a significant rival with an early running order position. Back in Denmark, Anja Nissen appeared to be the chosen one last year with ‘Never Alone‘, awarded the pimp slot with her main solo female rival, Simone singing ‘Heart Shaped Hole’, buried in the running order’s second place . This was, of course, without factoring in the voting power of a telegenic boyband in Lighthouse X, in a super-final decided by public vote only.
The songs national broadcasters do not want are regularly buried early in the running order to try and dampen their public vote or are conveniently penalised by the jury. In the Moldovan national final in 2011, Pasha Parfeny’s superb ‘Dorule’ was drawn 6 out of 25, with main rival Zdob si Zdub enjoying a much later running order position in 24 with ’So Lucky’ – a televote second place combined with a jury second place ensuring they won the ticket to Dusseldorf.
You often see what can only be described as a ‘curious’ jury shortfall with certain entries that fly high on the televote in National Finals being penalised by jurors. In that Moldovan national final in 2011 Karizma singing ‘When Life Is Grey’ took twelve points on the televote, winning the public vote by a landslide of 33.35 percent. But the jury awarded it only a single points.
Can You Really Decide?
With the UK’s National Final approaching, it is worth remembering what happened last year and how the BBC again will try and sway televoters. ‘Eurovision You Decide’ was tucked away on BBC 4’s Friday night music spot, but this didn’t stop the show essentially telling viewers how they should vote with a panel of music experts led by Carrie Grant given the Simon Cowell role as chief opinion-former.
In summary, this would have been my read of last year’s show: Dulcima perform first and Carrie informs viewers, ‘That felt a little bit lightweight’. Sorry guys, you are not the chosen ones tonight as you’ve been given the coffin slot (first in the running order) and Carrie has just killed your chance stone dead by calling you ‘lightweight’.
Matthew James is second up. Carrie says: ‘I love this song but is this the type of song that could win it for the UK?’ In other words, Carrie doesn’t think the song can win ESC 2016 for the UK and by association viewers should think likewise.
Third to perform is Darline, who might have been the UK’s answer to First Aid Kit in Stockholm. Sadly for them, they didn’t get Carrie’s seal of approval. Instead she says, ‘I want to see a duo who interact more.’ Carrie is conveying the message to viewers Darline do not work well as a group here and with the rest of the panel’s praise muted, Darline will not be winning tonight.
Karl William Lund is next. Carrie: ‘The most solid performance we’ve seen tonight’. By praising Karl in this way Carrie is telling viewers the previous 3 songs are inferior, so a further blow to their chances. Despite vote lines not being open yet this comment puts Karl in the lead, establishing him as the best so far, but with two more songs left he is still looking vulnerable. This is likely not enough of a ramp for him to win.
Bianca sings ’Shine A Little Light’ next. ‘Douze point, douze point,’ Carrie raves. ‘That’s what we’re waiting for. This is the type of song that can win. Fantastic.’ Katrina Leskanich follows up with, ‘Come on Bianca. Take this all the way to Stockholm,’ in excitedly screeched tones.
What is that you say? Trying to influence viewers? Yes, folks. I think we might have seen a hint of Bianca favour there.
Joe and Jake perform ‘You’re Not Alone’ from the pimp slot. ‘I think there’s gonna be a lot of young people voting for these guys tonight. I think you’ve got a lot of fans out there probably,’ Carrie concedes.
The chat with the panel ends with Mel Giedroyc saying, ‘Eurovision loves a duet. Carrie, wouldn’t you say that’s true?’ ‘I’ve no idea, do they? Really?’ an incredulous Carrie replies. This is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Bianca is The Chosen one, but Joe and Jake win. The BBC didn’t get its preferred outcome. Part of the quandary as a trader of TV betting markets is whether producers will be successful. Will the public play ball? Bianca traded as a short-priced favourite when vote lines closed but if you believed the power of the pimp slot would prevail then you would have been backing Joe and Jake instead.
Back at the main Eurovision Song Contest, we regularly see The Dark Arts aiding some while hampering others. In 2013, ‘Only Teardrops’ was given the winner’s clothes by way of staging effects, enjoying falling confetti and a massive fire curtain towards the end
To my eyes it looked like Sweden did not want to win Eurovision again in 2013 as it killed the colour scheme for Robin Stjernberg singing ‘You’. He was monochromed. This was a host using Dark Arts to put its own act away by greyscaling him. He got the fire curtain at the end but in this instance it felt incongruous with what had come before.
Austria went even further in 2015, setting fire to The Makemakes lead singer Dominic Muhrer’s piano. Visual inference: this song and performance is going down in flames. It can be a costly business hosting Eurovision, don’t you know?
The EBU has made a rod for its own back with its producer-decided running orders in terms of accusations of Dark Arts at play for the two Semi Finals and the Grand Final. The song Malta’s Ira Losco ended up taking to Stockholm, ‘Walk On Water’, had a Swedish songwriting team and Ira was awarded the pimp slot in Semi Final 1. Not that this is in any way suggests the Dark Arts extend to nepotism and preferential treatment was given to Ira at the Sweden-hosted Eurovision 2016, but it certainly helped Malta’s chances.
Second spot in the running order has never won the Eurovision Song Contest for the simple reason it is the most disadvantageous position. Later in the running order is usually better but later running order slots can still be cunningly compromised.
Conspiracy hat firmly donned once more, the Russian draw of eighteenth in the 2016 Grand Final was not as helpful as it might have appeared, with upbeat Spain (’Say Yay!’) following it, lessening the impact of ‘You Are The Only One’. And cleverly, by awarding Russia the late slot – a perceived advantageous running order position – there was a high-level of plausible deniability.
Australia’s 2016 entry had to navigate the Semi Final for the first time. Dami Im was drawn in the first half and ended up being placed in the tenth slot – the latest running order position it could have been given. Come the grand final, Dami Im drew first half again. Lo and behold, Australia was placed thirteenth. Again, the latest available slot.
Dark Arts appear to have translated into blatant favouritism, with Australia also enjoying a handy break in the live Grand Final and a host’s lead-in to Dami’s performance. After Poland had performed in the twelfth slot, Mans chatted with Carola and Loreen discussing their favourite Eurovision songs down the years. A convenient segue for Mans to finish with the words, ‘Let’s see if we can find new favourites. Back to Globen and Australia…’
Did the EBU fancy an Australia win so it could decide where to host the Contest in 2017? In the current financial climate with many European countries’ economies in recession, not to mention ongoing political instability and terrorist threat in some parts of Europe, this makes sense. Also, having a South Korean-born singer win the Song Contest may well have been seen as ideal for Brand Eurovision as the Contest looks to extend the franchise into the Asia-Pacific region.
It can never be a level playing field but The Dark Arts ensures a degree of handicapping damages some, while preferential treatment enhances others. Australia ended up being beaten by Ukraine and you would have to say the EBU probably did not get the result it ideally wanted.
As a trader of TV betting markets, I am grateful for the sly machinations of TPTB. They add intrigue and are a major component in trying to unravel the puzzle. As much as the contrarian in me is always delighted when their dastardly deeds are foiled, even more joy is gained reading the runes wisely and earning a bigger profit as a result.