Lisa Campbell: Don’t judge it by its crass title – this is typical Channel 4

 

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There's a saying in the TV industry about Channel 4: "People tune in for the wrong reasons, and stay watching for the right ones." If ever there was a marketing campaign that summed up that mantra, it's the one currently kicking up a storm for a new series where people with disabilities seek love.

The problem for many is in the title: The Undateables. Channel 4 argues that its remit is to challenge stereotypes; this ad does nothing but reinforce them.

Online disability forums are rife with those expressing their anger at what they believe will be cheap, exploitative TV, a freak show to entertain the able-bodied masses. However, while the title is crass and sensationalist, the series isn't, judging by the first episode. Its characters are compelling and their stories sensitively told. Channel 4 is likely, therefore, to achieve its ultimate goal of bringing difficult subjects – Tourette's or Asperger's – to prime-time audiences.

The ad comes comes hot on the heels of "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier." This launch campaign for its new series of My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings caused outrage – some adding "More Racist" to the list. It sparked hundreds of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and plenty of newspaper headlines.

And that's exactly what Channel 4 wanted – plenty of noise to tempt viewers back for a second time. Whether or not you agree with the notion that this is public service television at its best, with Channel 4 claiming to raise awareness of issues facing the traveller community, its ploy to pull in the viewers worked.

Broadcasters have employed these sensationalist tactics for some time. The trend really took off around 2004 when the term "shock doc" was coined, prompted by such titles as The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin and The Boy with a Tumour for a Face. On the whole, the documentaries delivered on content and attracted a key audience that normally wouldn't see them. The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off was a brilliant example. It was simultaneously funny and shockingly sad, and won 13 awards including a Bafta.

Of course, these shows don't always deliver, and it's not difficult to see why people accuse broadcasters of being cynical. Channel 4's Beauty & the Beast (the beast in the title referred to people with facial disfigurements) was criticised for being more "Snog, Marry, Avoid – Extreme" than a valuable social experiment. If The Undateables isn't about disability per se but about the universal quest for love, why not include able-bodied people in the line-up – confirmed bachelors or the painfully shy?

Where Channel 4 has got issues of diversity right, it's when they've been included in mainstream shows such as Big Brother, where Tourette's and blindness haven't been the focus of conversation, just an important part of it.

Lisa Campbell is the editor of Broadcast

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