Welcome to the world of pawnography

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The Independent Culture
It is not surprising that the most "successful" television programme over the festive period should have been Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. The big-money quiz attracted 17 million viewers, more than anything apart from football matches, soaps and royal funerals for a decade. The show hit a double jackpot by trawling up a fortune in telephone charges: nearly two million people attempted to take part at a rough cost of 75p per call. No two ways about it, this has been a resounding television coup.

Not long ago the distinguishing feature of British gameshows was the shoddiness of the prizes. We could sneer at those raucous Americans and vulgar Spaniards pocketing fabulous sums of loot while our own modest folk might, if they were clever, walk away with cutlery, a sofa or an encyclopedia. The game, we thought and hoped, was the thing; taking part was what counted. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has smashed that myth. From now on, those cheapskate afternoon shows in which grandma competes for a new camcorder are going to look flimsier than ever.

Should we be dismayed that a quarter of the population of these isles was apparently transfixed by this avaricious spectacle? On one level, it's hardly worth the bother. The desire to be rich is as universal as the desire for food or sex - who hasn't sneakily wondered, every now and then, what they wouldn't do with a million quid? And it is hardly a modern invention, either. If a similar quiz had existed in the Middle Ages, with some chirpy town crier wandering into villages and asking multiple choice questions outside the alehouse, then an awful lot of peasants would have laid down their scythes for a while and twisted their faces into a sweaty rictus as they agonised over whether a pestle was a bowl or a stick.

But the success of the programme does demonstrate again the gulf between what we might call good television, and what we have to call successful television. Most of the arguments about the future of the BBC as a public service broadcaster founder on the conflict between the desire for quality on the one hand and the desire for big audiences on the other. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? reminds us that these are hard - perhaps impossible - things to reconcile. It is arguably universal - TV as public address system. But look what it is addressing? It has no pretensions to be interesting, aspiring only to give us a voyeuristic glimpse of someone else's greedy white knuckles.

In this sense it is almost deliberately bad, and Chris Tarrant is well cast as its master of ceremonies. He revels in the cod drama, and is not too proud to lay it on thick. One way to create unbearable suspense is simply to be insufferable - to come over all smirky and gloating. You've got pounds 32,000, he says, pausing to ratchet up the tension like a man with four aces pretending to hesitate. And you think that the Thames is the world's longest river. Pause. If you're right you'll have pounds 64,000. Pause. If you're wrong you'll have pounds 16,000. We're looking for the world's longest river. Pause. You're saying, the Thames. Pause. You've thought about it. Pause. You're sure about it. Pause. The Thames. Long look at the floor. Ostentatiously tiny shrug. And 17 million people mutter: Oh just get on with it for Pete's sake.

Any programme wishing to appeal to a mass audience must address a low common denominator. But the key point is that it does not need to be enjoyed. The people behind viewing figures# seem to assume that if so many million watch something, they must by definition like it. But this can hardly be true. We don't "enjoy" train wrecks or car smashes or African famines, but we are gripped by them. Enjoyment is only one of the things that engages us in life and attracts us in television.

Sometimes we watch TV in the same way that we go to football matches - to give us something to get pissed off at. In this case the thing to get cross about was the sight of a big corporation playing with and preying on people's worst hopes. It's a form of cash-pornography - pawnography, if you like. One of the the definitions of porn is that it provokes desires which it tantalisingly declines to slake. So with this quiz. #As Tarrant himself might say: Right, you've tuned in to watch our hot little greedfest. You've got a perfectly OK life - the job's all right, considering, and the kids are cheerful and doing well. But you're saying you want to watch this. You're sure of that. Pause. OK. Pause. If you go on, you'll have gnawing pangs of misery and envy. But you want to go on. You're sure? Pause. Right.

And we go on. Of course we do.