Essay: I'm sorry, dear reader. But you really do have dreadful taste

People's polls are everywhere. And Nicholas Barber hates them
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Reader, I've got nothing against you personally. I always think of you as an intelligent, discerning human being. You're probably well- dressed and attractive, to boot. But I must say, I'm not too happy about your doing my job, and I'm certainly not happy about your doing it without pay. I mean, how am I supposed to charge for my critical assessments of popular culture when you're handing over yours for nothing? Hmm?

Last week you phoned the BBC to choose The Nation's Favourite Two Ronnies Sketch. Also last week, Channel 4 kept plugging its Music of the Millennium survey, while over on satellite TV, Sky Premier announced the results of its Millennium Movies poll. The print media are getting your opinions free of charge, too. The cover story of this month's Q magazine is "100 Greatest Stars of the 20th Century. As voted by you!" Keep this up and I'll be out of work.

Lists of Britain's best novels and funniest sitcoms are pouring out every week, compiled by means of what we might call the voluntary arts opinion poll. What happens is that you the reader/ viewer/ listener are assured it will be tremendous fun to phone or write to a magazine/ TV station/ radio station and tell them how much you like Elvis Presley. Soon afterwards, the final scores are circulated as if they were shocking sociological revelations. In fact, these surveys are no more informative than a show of hands in your local pub.

Reading Sky Premier's hot 100 tells us neither which is the most successful movie ever produced nor which one is the best. To learn which film is most popular, you have to sit down with a calculator and a book of box- office receipts. To learn which film is best ... well, that's less straightforward, but I expect most cinema critics could argue at length why Star Wars is not the finest story ever committed to celluloid and why Titanic is not the second finest, whatever the Sky Premier poll might claim. And which film ranks at number 10? Put this in your popcorn bucket, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. You've never made a movie to match The Full Monty.

Q's referendum of the century's pop celebrities is just as inane, not least in its ranking of Mark "Bez" Berry at number 78. If you're going to attest that the Happy Mondays' undead maraca-shaking goon is a greater star than - to name some of those who amassed fewer votes - Diana Ross, Louis Armstrong, Serge Gainsbourg, Damon Albarn, Sly Stone and Elvis Costello, you're going to have a hard time defending your definitions of "greatness" and "stardom." Voluntary arts opinion polls just don't work.

Each year, several Brit awards are presented according to a ballot of the general public, or rather, of whichever segment of the general public happens to watch the TV programme or patronise the record store that is sponsoring the award. And in their acceptance speeches, the recipients of these prizes will always, always say that the award is particularly gratifying because it's from the people who really matter: the fans. But the fans get to cast their vote every time they buy a record, and their views are broadcast every Sunday on Radio 1. Tarnished as the reputation of the charts is, they're much more scientific than any award voted for by an unrepresentative sample of "the public". Channel 4 have even gone so far as to acknowledge this. One of the adverts for their Music of the Millennium survey shows Graham Norton phoning repeatedly to nominate Celine Dion. Any record company with a clued-up marketing department could do the same.

Another flaw of the system is that there is no guarantee of the electorate understanding what it is they're supposed to consider. Take, for example, the Brits again. The award for Best Video is decided by a TV viewers' phone-in vote. Do the viewers weigh up the quality and originality of the nominated videos and tick their boxes accordingly? Of course they don't. They stay loyal to their favourite bands. The video that wins is the one attached to that year's biggest hit single.

Worthless as voluntary arts opinion polls may seem, they do have some value - to the company that sets them up. For any organisation, a poll is both a cunning method of compiling a mailing list and an effective market-research tool: it's useful for Q to know its readers taste in music and useful for Sky Premier to know its subscribers' taste in films.

The reason the results are promulgated in the press, when they have so little interest to anyone else, is even less noble: opinion-poll data is a cheap and easy way to fill some space. In a silly season when the Sun can devote its front page to inviting you to select your preferred couple, the Wessexes or the Beckhams, you can understand why Sky Premier's tally was so widely reported.

So, the newspaper gets a fluffy article out of the deal. In return, the pollsters get publicity: last Monday, the Millennium Movies bumf bought Sky Premier a spot in every British broadsheet. And if free copy and free advertising weren't enough of an incentive to dream up a survey, you can make hard cash out of it, too. In January, ITV admitted that it pocketed pounds 2m from people ringing its premium-rate phone line and volunteering to be contestants on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? If a few pence can be taken every time someone dials your poll's number, what more could a publishing or television company ask for? Not only do the customers provide material, they pay for the privilege, too!

Our acceptance of these practices is a sign of the public-access times we live in. While the Internet lets unprecedented numbers of people communicate their ideas to unprecedented numbers of readers, surveys are becoming more and more influential. Films are re-edited after test screenings. The Government, so the political commentators tell us, won't make a move without consulting focus groups. Whether the quality of new films and New Labour has improved as a consequence is open to debate.

The phenomenon is also a symptom of the calendar. The usual pretext for a voluntary arts opinion poll is an anniversary - and the year 2000 is the grandest anniversary that any editor could wish for. Naturally, that poor, overworked word, "millennium", is called into service with incessant frequency. As if it didn't have enough on its hands with domes and bugs, it has to lend significance to every half-baked questionnaire that comes along, perhaps because it reminds us of the Middle Eastern census that occurred 2,000 years ago.

What's so ridiculous about this is that the M-word implies that a poll is taking into account every one of the last thousand years. As it happens, Sky Premier's survey is woefully short of films from the 11th to the 19th centuries. And if Music of the Millennium is being appraised, then the right to vote should be contingent on one's knowledge of madrigals and plainsong.

There could be another reason why voluntary arts opinion polls get on my nerves. Part of me may just be uncomfortable with the very concept of arbitrary top 10s and awards. Whether it is critics or arts practitioners or the public who do the judging, I'm not convinced of the merit in stating that one album is intrinsically superior to another, wildly different, album. But that's an angle I don't think I'll pursue any further. If I did, I'd be out of work.

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