Marina Baker: Television worthy of our times

'Some might say it's patronising to say the majority have it wrong. But they do have it wrong and they need patronising'

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I am always prepared to give popular culture a chance. It's good to know what the masses are watching, which is why I gamely tuned in to a few episodes of Popstars last year. I was rewarded by bearing witness to the premier airing of what is now generally considered to be TV's most cringe-worthy moment ever. A bloke called Darius, with long hair and a goatee, slaughtered a Britney Spears hit. Proof if ever it were needed that just because you think you look and sound cool as you sing to your reflection in the wardrobe mirror, you don't.

After much persuasion from a friend in publishing, I also tuned in to Big Brother. "Try it", she said. "Especially if you're serious about ever writing novels. It provides certain insights into human behaviour." She was right. At the end of the first series I even tried to vote, for the lesbian former nun, Anna – what a wise and friendly cookie she was. However, when I phoned I couldn't get through. I went on to watch the second series and the celebrity version. But never voted again.

Pop Idol, however, the latest offering in the relentless copycat production line of embarrassment TV, leaves me totally cold. Did around 10 million people really tune in. And did 5.8 million people really feel the need to call in on Saturday to support either Will, Gareth or Darius (yes the very same Darius from Popstars – he doesn't give up easily, that one)?

OK, so a fair percentage of those votes can be easily explained. Each contestant has his fair share of relatives, friends and student buddies who are prepared to vote 20 or 30 times, minimum. But it still doesn't explain the millions of other votes. One of the singers, Gareth, has been hailed as the new gay icon by Boy George, who, I guess, knows more about these things than I could.

But what's in it for the rest of us? For some, maybe it's the pleasure of seeing Ant and Dec, the presenting duo on this mindless series. There are many who think the Saturday morning kids' show SM:TV Live, which they presented pre- Pop Idol, will never be as good without them. They're the kind of boys you fancied at school, they make you laugh with their fart jokes. They've also had plenty of practice getting us to pick up our telephones, or allow our children to do so, in order to win loads of signed goodies from the latest bands – Steps one week, SClub7 the next, plus loads of boy bands who all look the same.

For others, it could be the judges that makes Pop Idol, an irritating up-dated imitation of Opportunity Knocks, somehow watchable (phone lines are the new clap-o-meter). Right from the beginning when hopeless hopefuls queued around the block for their one-minute auditions, these four judges, all from the music business, were honest to the point of cruelty, ensuring their victims left with no illusions regarding their lack of talent.

Watching these early heats preoccupies the same bit of our brains and emotions as slowing down to rubberneck at a traffic accident. You don't want to look but you can't help looking – you might see something that you most definitely don't see every day. Plus you can always comfort yourself with the thought: "Yowser, I'm glad that's not me."

I have a friend who claims she watches Pop Idols because she likes the songs and thinks all 10 finalists, not just next week's winner, have a future in the music industry. For the moment, all eyes are on Will and Gareth. People only voted for Darius for the same reason Romans voted to save the odd Christian from the gladiators – so they could watch him fighting for his life another day.

But I think Pop Idol's contestants are history already. We already have Britney, Kylie, Madonna, Robbie and that newcomer who, despite being the son of Julio Iglesias, is still considered to be cool. Do we really need to have more idols? In the long run we will do, but the talent is unlikely to hail from Pop Idol. Let's face it, they do sing OK. But they haven't got the it factor that determines the difference between a welcome addition to the cabaret line upon a cruise ship's line-up and a true superstar.

Soon newspaper and magazine editors will tire of these mini-celebrities whose lives really aren't that interesting. They've had boyfriends and girlfriends and love their mums. Big deal. I like more from my gossip columns than the fact that Gareth and Zoe (the last female finalist, voted out the show before last: positive proof that women can't stand to see women doing well – they've obviously joined forces with the gay vote) like each other but aren't going out .The winner will get a recording contract, release a few records and appear on the Saturday Show and SM:TV Live on alternate weekends until we all move on to concentrate on the next series of Big Brother this summer. I also believe there's another series of Popstars due. Oh joy.

We must also get to know the new person joining Hear'Say, the band spawned from Popstars. They held auditions this week to replace the girl with kids who's realised there's more to life than being part of a mediocre band. I must admit I did watch when BBC's Breakfast covered the Hear'Say audition yesterday. There was an ugly bloke singing loudly and badly. He was then interviewed about how awful it was that he didn't get a proper audition because he didn't have the look. Well, he doesn't. And if he'd done a bit more Darius-style mirror gazing, he could have worked this out for himself, surely.

Hear'Say, having experienced the gruelling audition-side of Popstars, kindly thought to save people from themselves by only auditioning 100 likely-looking candidates from the 3,000 who turned up. Are we disappointed? I think we are. Could Hear'Say have saved themselves the bother of auditioning anyone and picked a Pop Idol finalist instead? They probably could have.

Hayley would have been good. Zoe would have been nearly as good. But perhaps Darius would be the most obvious choice. Darius doesn't, after all, totally lack talent. He just lacks taste. Good for him. The majority of TV viewers lack taste. And boy are we glad when somebody – anybody – lacks more taste than us. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

Gosh, for someone who doesn't like – or watch – Pop Idol, I certainly found plenty to say. It's what in the United States they call the water-cooler effect. Certain things, particularly bad television, gives us all something to talk about with work colleagues. If yesterday's tabloid front pages were anything to go by, wannabe television certainly beats discussing the news.

This is very sad. Picking out nobodies and turning them into mini-celebrities overnight suggests that anyone can achieve this goal. No teenager wants to be anything else but a pop star these days. Check out their magazines for proof. Where will our teachers and emergency workers come from in the future?

Some might say that it's patronising to suggest that the majority have got it wrong. But they do have it wrong and they need patronising. How to get through to them, though? Perhaps young people could be invited to audition to become parliamentary candidates with television crews filming the highs and lows as they grapple with policy and meet constituency members.

The judging panel could consist of a member of each major political party plus a Green for good measure. That would lead to an improvement in Saturday-night viewing. It would also beat the drivel put out in the majority's name at its own game.

marinabaker@emara.com

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