Ian Burrell: Strictly scandalous – Beeb short-changes viewers again

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"What is the point in having a public phone-in if the popular ones get pressured off anyway? They may as well just let the judges decide," commented contributor DgembaDgemba on the website Digital Spy yesterday after John Sergeant's abrupt departure from BBC1's
Strictly Come Dancing.

Sergeant's decision to quit the Saturday night prime-time show has, once again, thrown into confusion the whole notion of viewer participation in British television. Just as after the premium rate phone-in scandals of last year, audiences have been left feeling short-changed, their text votes contemptuously disregarded.

No one would argue that Sergeant is any twinkle-toes. Four years older than Mikhail Baryshnikov, he displays all the mobility of Lloyd Scott, the London Marathon contestant who chooses to run in a deep sea diving costume. But that's not the point. The public voted for the former BBC and ITN political editor to be allowed to carry on dancing.

Instead of respecting that decision, the BBC apparently encouraged a furious and very public backlash against the public vote by the judges. "Insiders" for the show briefed the tabloids on how much anger there was behind the scenes that Sergeant had not been given his marching orders.

Judge Arlene Phillips was said to be livid that the actress Cherie Lunghi had been made to quit in favour of the journalist. "Arlene thinks it's a joke that John is still in it. It's ridiculous that Cherie had to leave as she's a much better dancer," the insider told the Daily Mirror. Similar claims were made of the head judge, Len Goodman, who reportedly thought the public vote for Sergeant "makes a mockery of the competition".

Viewers were yesterday scratching their heads at the apparent pomposity of a show that is intended as light entertainment and best known for having uncovered the fact Natasha Kaplinsky can perform a creditable rumba and Mark Ramprakash can do a decent salsa.

"Now that they've taken the show so seriously it makes them look so incredibly pretentious and appear to be trying to make out this show is a somehow worthy exercise in exploring the art of dance," fumed one online respondent. "Forgetting it's supposed to be about entertaining the public and giving them what they want to watch on a Saturday night."

The problem with Strictly Come Dancing, according to David Wood, of Broadcast magazine, is that the BBC was determined it would be a bona fide talent contest, awarding genuine dancing merit and – most importantly – fulfilling the corporation's public service broadcasting credentials and thus justifying the licence fee.

The problem was that those paying their £139.50 for a licence were not considered worthy arbiters of dance-floor talent.

"When things go off message the BBC really can't stand it," said Wood. "They've got rid of John Sergeant because it was becoming untenable for the show to operate within the guidelines that had been set out for it editorially."

He contrasted Strictly Come Dancing with the ITV show I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! which he said was a straightforward "popularity contest" rather than an assessment of the contestants' grace and technical ability.

The BBC was at pains to make clear it had not forced out Sergeant, a battle-hardened veteran of the Westminster lobby who many times locked horns with Margaret Thatcher. Jay Hunt, the BBC One Controller, said: "John has told us of his plans to leave and we are very sad to see him go."

The BBC allowed a situation to grow in which Sergeant, despite saying that "it was always my intention to have fun on the show and I was hoping to stay in as long as possible", felt that he was so unwanted, he'd had enough.

In effect, the public wish has been overruled, just like when it was confirmed last year that BBC staff had disregarded a phone vote to name a Blue Peter cat Cookie, calling it Socks instead.

It seems that the BBC cannot bring itself to trust the public. The corporation remains desperate to encourage audience participation, conscious that such interactivity ticks boxes in terms of its public service role. Yet it seems that those viewer contributions achieve nothing, except to add a few pennies to the coffers of the mobile phone companies.

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