ITC gets tough on talk show 'trash'

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The Independent Online
THE INDEPENDENT Television Commission yesterday called for tighter safeguards to prevent impostors appearing on confessional TV shows, in the wake of allegations that several of the "real" people featured on such shows have been actors and hoaxers.

The BBC has confirmed that five employees of its daytime show Vanessa are to face formal disciplinary proceedings, but this has failed to stem a backlash from some of its most high-profile journalists, furious at an affair which they believe has tainted the BBC's journalistic integrity.

The ITC, the regulatory body for ITV companies, has now written to franchise- holders asking them to review safeguards to ensure impostors do not slip through the net. Michael Grade, the former head of Channel 4 who introduced the confessional format to Britain with US import Oprah Winfrey, defended such shows but accused "rogue" and untrained producers and researchers of transforming television into a "commodity with a requirement for instant results".

Allegations involving actors and impostors who do the rounds of the studios have also hit Vanessa's ITV rival Trisha (the "boyfriend" of a rolypolygram was an actor she had met only the night before) and Kilroy, whose presenter, Robert Kilroy-Silk, admitted he had been hoaxed five times.

But there is no sign the British love affair with the confessional show is waning. There are 20 shows being screened on terrestrial, satellite, digital and cable television, enabling us to watch an almost unbroken stream of dysfunctional angst from 9am to midnight. The pioneering sense of controversy that surrounded Channel 4's The Word has been superseded by a mainstream audience of thousands who are only too happy to talk.

In just four months, a recruitment agency has compiled a database of 3,000 people ready to talk about specific problems to the media. "We thought we'd get around 400 people on our books," said Kizzi Nkwocha, director of the agency Fifteen Minutes. "We then placed an advert in a south London newspaper which got 400 replies in a week and we realised there was a huge untapped market of people desperate for an outlet to talk about themselves.

"Most of us have ordinary lives but perhaps 10 per cent think we can use the media to get some recognition. The fear about washing your dirty linen in public is disappearing. People seem willing to share their problems with an unknown audience."

But last night, senior BBC journalists made it clear that they felt the corporation should distance itself from such programmes. "This sort of twaddle reflects on the whole of the BBC's output," said one senior broadcast journalist. "We're furious because we're being cut to the bloody bone while the BBC is pouring money into this kind of drivel. It's the nature of broadcasting that you come up with a turkey every now and then but this turkey is on five mornings a week. It is trash and the BBC shouldn't run it."

Another well-known BBC figure said the fiasco was the result of the BBC getting involved in "tat" it would have avoided in the past. "It's the inevitable consequence of the BBC getting into a ratings war and slashing the budgets of programmes. It's difficult to think of a more bare-faced lie than for Matthew Bannister [BBC production chief executive] to say that Vanessa is not about ratings. These shows have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with exploiting people's misfortunes."

Researchers and journalists working on Vanessa are also said to be deeply unhappy. "There is a case for ordinary people to go on television and discuss difficult personal issues but if you do it every day you're putting pressure on researchers to create sensational story lines," said one. "The opportunity is there for people who love publicity to take advantage of them."

But the phenomenon appears to be here to stay. "There are just so many shows out there," said Mr Nkwocha. "And the new digital stations will all need to make cheap television and talk shows are a good way of doing that."

As a result, Mr Nkwocha wonders why the researchers felt they had to get actors for Vanessa. "The real stories that people come to us with are just so bizarre that you couldn't possibly think them up."