Stefan Stern: Note to the GCSE generation: time to factor out The X Factor

As pupils pick up their exam results today, it would bebetter to offer them a more meaningful vision of what working life involves than this overlit, overloud spectacle

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It must be tough standing up there in front of the X Factor judges, but at least you are getting face-to-face advice. From next April, young people seeking help from the All-Age Careers Service will have to try their luck with a "helpline" or website, rather than see an adviser as they do now. Not enough provocation to start a riot, perhaps, but hardly encouraging. Say what you like about Louis Walsh, but he does look you in the eye when he offers his verdict. It's not always the kindest careers advice you have ever heard, of course.

Some Independent readers may not realise it yet, but "X Factor fever" has broken out again. The first show was on last weekend and over 10 million people were watching (with 12 million at its peak). "Our Saturday nights are complete," as one fan website put it. This televisual event would have passed me by, had it not been for that vital messaging service, Twitter.

Last Saturday evening I mentioned how much I was enjoying listening to a tribute to Robert Robinson, the broadcaster who died two weeks ago. Intelligent and cultured friends tweeted back, saying I was missing out on a shared national experience by wallowing in Radio 4 when I should have been watching ITV. I switched over in time to catch an extraordinary sequence, which probably delighted true X Factor fans but left me feeling slightly sick.

Talent shows are nothing new. And it would be wrong to feel too superior about them. Programmes such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces achieved great popularity in the 1960s and 70s, and provided a pretty wholesome viewing experience. I enjoyed them. True, most of the impressionists offered the same roster of more or less unconvincing impersonations. Not many of the comedians were funny, and not many of the singers could sing. Very few future stars ever emerged – Lenny Henry, Tom O'Connor and Marti Caine spring to mind. But the shows were harmless and mildly entertaining.

The X Factor is different. Loud, raucous and at times chaotic, the programme seems to revel in its occasional moments of cruelty and excess. The audience is cranked up to an almost hysterical state. Some acts appear to have been selected precisely because of their lack of talent. At times the judges perform as though they were characters in a pantomime. (This analysis is based on less than an hour's total lifetime viewing of the show, but I am confident in my prejudices.) Fame is dangled as a golden first prize, and anyone, anyone can dream of having it.

Britain does have talent. It's just not clear that we have enough of it. With youth unemployment at intolerably high levels, now is not the time to be cutting off face-to-face advice and redirecting people to a call centre instead.

As teenagers pick up their GCSE results today, it would be better to offer them a more meaningful vision of what working life involves, and what they could be aspiring to achieve, rather than the overlit and overloud spectacle which is now, apparently, making our Saturday nights complete.

The X Factor version of talent and success is misleading and ultimately destructive. For one thing, real talent is a much rarer commodity than the programme format implies. It is cruel to invite ordinary people on to the show to be laughed at or ridiculed. For another, there are few short cuts to lasting success. Yes, talent is necessary, but so is hard work. Genuine stars build their careers over many years, mastering skills, learning a trade. It takes time. It is better, as it were, to earn that smart new TV set than to just try to grab it through a broken shop window.

In this parallel world of TV land, a lot of young people with no obviously exceptional gifts parade themselves briefly at the risk of painful humiliation. But even the eventual winners of this, at times, grotesque process disappear soon afterwards.

This extreme form of televisual entertainment is something new, operating without much of the traditional restraint implied by the term "public service broadcasting". We can expect the new series of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel Five to rival The X Factor in its shock value. Some people turn on to watch all this with innocent enjoyment. Some are there to get off on the freak show element. And some just look on and sneer.

Which brings me back to the late Robert Robinson. Here was a sophisticated man who made a very nice living appearing on popular TV and radio programmes, but without ever truly cheapening himself or belittling his colleagues in the studio. He achieved fame, hosting quizzes and game shows, but did not, it seems, sell (or coarsen) his soul. Intelligent bemusement characterised his appearances. And in his interactions with "real" people, on Ask the Family or Brain of Britain, he remained sufficiently engaged to do his job properly without taking any of it too seriously. He was kind without being condescending and authoritative without being patronising.

Robinson emerged from that era of serious broadcasting portrayed in BBC2's latest drama serial The Hour, which ended this week. Financial rewards for TV's stars were far smaller back then, of course, and viewer choice extremely limited. But not all the Reithian instincts were absurd. And watching even the briefest clips of incidents from The X Factor is enough to make you want to pull down a John Reith quote or two on television – such as: "It's a potential social menace of the first magnitude."

Without explicitly moralising in this way, Robinson embodied Reithian values. Showbiz isn't wicked, he seemed to be saying. But it does not have to be crass either. He would not have survived long as an X Factor judge.

In the continued agonising over the causes of the recent riots, a split has emerged between those who think that we have a cultural problem and those who think that poverty is more to blame. In the case of The X Factor the situation is clearer. The problem is one of cultural poverty. Seriously: you must have something better to do with your time.

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, London

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