It’s a fact, we’re slowly approaching the day where people with geeky interests will be less of a niche and more of a market that the average company looks at as a respected and valuable demographic to cater content to. The signs are everywhere. Two of last year’s biggest movies, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, were comic book movies. Disney’s latest CGI film, Wreck-It Ralph, had cameos from Q-Bert, Bowser and Zangeif. Whatever you think of The Big Bang Theory, we have a hugely popular show on TV where the main cast is a group of comic book loving physicists. Go back ten years I don’t think any of these could have happened, nor would they have had the same cultural impact as they have done.
The problem is, even with all this said, the fact that nerd culture is seeping into the mainstream consciousness doesn’t change the fact that geeky, anime loving gamers are still looked on and portrayed largely as bedroom dwelling weirdos whose family members and friends should be ashamed of acknowledging.
This is the case for Britain’s Got Talent, but the discrimination is largely swept under the rug by heavy-handed legal contracts that prevent people from speaking up about their experiences.
I’ve been following a story that has been unfolding across YouTube and Twitter for a while now. Back in September 2012 I interviewed pixel punk superstar Oliver Hindle, otherwise known as Superpowerless, who makes nerdy music online using a healthy dose of modified game console soundboards. Having seen him play live I can certainly say he puts on a good show. He was recently approached by talent scouts working on Britain’s Got Talent who had seen his music online and invited him to audition in front of the judges.
Oliver was obviously sceptical, knowing the show’s habit of allowing people to perform in front of the judges just to laugh at them and boo them off. It’s far from uncommon for acts that will never have a chance of making it through to the final to be put in front of the judges just to indulge the audience’s sense of Schadenfreude. Having voiced his concerns, he was told that “as the SUPERPOWERLESS band/brand you as a collective are actually visually very powerful indeed. The band would create a 2 minute TV EVENT, owning that big stage and blow the audience away… we don’t want you to be a novelty act, we want you to get across the SUPERPOWERLESS way. Also aside from BGT, Nick and I (higher ups at SyCo) would really love to come and meet you and see a live show of Superpowerless. You really are something special and we see massive potential beyond bgt. Please do keep us up to date of your live gigs etc.”
Sounds promising right? Throughout the rest of their correspondence they repeatedly insisted that he would be portrayed as a serious act and not be made a joke for the viewing audience. Unfortunately, the video below which Oliver put up following the audition shows that regardless of what was said, he was unfortunately a victim of a program that has the power to portray its acts however it likes.
As you can see, even with assurances in place, trying to show off your geeky awesomeness on a show like Britain’s Got Talent will ultimately end with you being portrayed as someone to be ashamed of. Rather than questions about their act, they were questioned on if any of the band were able to get a girlfriend, if they were too old to be into this sort of thing and if their parents were ashamed of them. The worst part of all this is that when the show airs, along with the interview, chances are that people at home will see a cut where they will be presented as weirdos that turn up, fail to impress the judges and go back to live in their parents basements as single losers.
I had the opportunity to speak to another BGT contestant who backed up Oliver’s claims. Greig Stewart, most commonly remembered as the Laser Harp musician who dubbed himself Theramin Hero on the show, got right up to the show’s semi-finals in 2012. He, like Oliver, was invited onto the show by talent scouts and skipped the first round of open auditions, jumping the queues straight to the filmed auditions, where he was portrayed as “a socially awkward nerd.”
In his own words, Greig told us, “I did feel at times the questions I was asked during certain interviews were designed in a way as to give the producers as much ‘ammunition’ as possible, so they could downplay my actual talent and focus on my geekyness, potentially in a negative light. There was one question in particular that seemed loaded. ‘It’s a bit nerdy, isn’t it?’ The way it was worded was as if it was something I should be ashamed of. ‘Of course,’ I promptly responded. ‘It is nerdy, I’m nerdy,’ which got a positive reaction from the crowd and I feel was one of the highlights of the whole experience.”
“Be aware that this show is primarily aimed at the general public and its intention is purely to entertain, with the producers always getting the final say,” said Greig. “The contracts they present you with are to cover themselves so that when they do something you don’t like, there’s very little you can do – because they own all the footage they take of you. The people who succeed are typically those who really want to be considered a mainstream success and have a commercialised talent. If there is some kind of geekdom you are trying to represent and the end commercialisation of your talent isn’t immediately apparent by the likes of general interest record companies, your chances of being taken seriously are slim. If you can accept that and still want to apply for the publicity (purely as a publicity tool, it is very effective), be aware of what you do and say, and don’t be pushed into saying anything you don’t want to.”
The show’s producers have a plan in mind for the footage they film of you and they are incredibly effective when it comes to taking away your right to object to the way you’re portrayed, which is where things went wrong for Oliver. Even though they told him that they would portray him in a positive light, they had no legal responsibility to do so. No matter how they choose to portray him, they’re the ones making that decision and any pleas to not air the footage are unlikely to get you anywhere.
Britain’s Got Talent have replied to Oliver’s complaint, but their response amounted to saying that they feel they portrayed him accurately and will be airing the segment as planned. Their response and his response to it can be seen below.
It’s important to note that Oliver is not alone in being treated this way by those working on the show. I was able to speak to a Britain’s Got Talent contestant from back in 2011 you may remember as The Entertainer-nator, real name Stuart Arnold.
Much like with Oliver, Stuart was interviewed in a way that made him look like he didn’t really know what he was talking about, in this case by pushing him to list things about his costume continually beyond the number of things he needed to list so that he would start umming and ahhhing.
He was also interviewed at the initial auditions as a regular human being, outside of his outfit and mask. While none of this ever made it to air, this was apparently a much more rounded interview about him as a general impressionist rather than making the focus his Terminator style outfit. The interviews that made it on the show, much like those involving Oliver, were designed deliberately to get clips they could use to laugh at him.
“Yeah, they filmed me as a person too but only showed me as a Terminator saying suggested lines. I ask you a question, you give a answer, I suggest a better way to say it and use that for the program.”
He had initially wanted to go onto the show as a general impressionist (he regularly impersonates Keith Lemon very successfully) but the show stripped his act down to the element that they could most easily make fun of.
“ITV, Simon Cowell, they made me look like a twat I felt. They just like to make folk look daft. They made me look like a twat for a cheap laugh. Keith Lemon Clone is my other lookalike act that they didn’t want the audience to see as it involves me looking human; not as easy to make fun of.”
While all of this helps to back up the claims made by Oliver about his treatment on Britain’s Got Talent, another interesting part of the show that came up in our discussion is a belief from those who have gone through to the next round, like Stuart, that the show may be rigged, with contestants that will make it through to the end of the show being decided before the first episode has even aired.
I was told, “I know a story that I’ll tell after the final as I already know who will win. A singer and a female. I can’t say any more at the mo.”
While he couldn’t elaborate, it will be very interesting to watch this series play out and see if these claims run true. If proven correct, then this would explain a lot about the audition process. It would seem that the auditions are much less about picking out talent, but selecting entertainment, people they can sculpt for humour and views, without ever intending to let them progress further than planned.
This plays into some interesting statistics about the show and the way it is run. I came into writing this with the impression that the majority of entrants were people who turned up to the open auditions and got through by impressing the judges. Apparently, being invited onto the live auditions like Oliver was, when you already have an existing fan base, is much more common than people realise.
There are numerous articles citing this aspect of the competition (see one and two for The X-Factor stats and three and four for BGT stats). While I was unable to find solid stats for Britain’s Got Talent, the waves of people stepping forward to talk about being in the same situation as Oliver in this article would suggest that the number of Britain’s Got Talent contestants being headhunted is probably comparable to the 50% headhunted rate cited for The X-Factor. The Daily Star revealed that Saturday’s Series 7 premiere included four acts who had not only been headhunted, but had been headhunted from other TV shows where they’d already showcased their talents.
Emma Ellinson, a show runner for Britain’s Got Talent in 2008 and fellow writer for MCMBuzz, told us that the live studio audience in the televised auditions are actively encouraged to be negative toward certain acts.
“The first rounds were pretty much what you’d expect, various rooms, each with a producer and someone like me on the DV cam,” said Emma. “At this point the producers watch and try not to give feedback as their placement in the show is decided later, or officially is anyway. The second rounds though (the rounds that are televised) have a whole other feeling to them. Before the show starts their warm up guy will get up on stage and get the audience geared up and ready to go (he appears on the show and behind the scenes stuff from time to time).”
Emma added that “there seemed to be a heavy focus on getting a negative reaction from the audience. He told the audience that if there was an act they didn’t like they should boo hiss and yell “Off, off, off” with clapping to add to their point. There was even a quick practice of this. You have to feel sorry for the poor souls who overheard all this. This was some time ago now but the overwhelming feeling was that the audience weren’t trained to sit and enjoy, or to be encouraging in anyway, they were trained to be mean and nasty. Because after all mean and nasty makes for better TV. Oh, and don’t the judges just love it when they can shush the audience and look like the good guy?”
Another act who spoke up about their experience being headhunted for the show is singer K Anderson, who writes songs about urban life. He seemingly came to BGT’s attention after, like Superpowerless, dressing in an animal costume for one of his songs (in this case dressing as a fox).
He received an initial email out of the blue telling him:
“I am not sure if you caught the show last year, but it did really well; it was watched by nearly 15 million viewers and uncovered a huge amount of great British talent. The show is back for a fifth consecutive year and we are more eager than ever to find the most talented people in the country. We are just about to start with our new series and so I thought I’d drop you a line to see if it’s something you may be interested in and if you had considered auditioning for us this year?”
After this he quickly received a phone call from their researchers pushing him to audition and, like Superpowerless, to do so in costume.
“The email came out of the blue, followed by a phone call,” said Anderson. “I was surprised because I thought so many people auditioned of their own accord. You don’t expect people to be headhunted. The researcher was so pushy that it put me off — she said I would be missing such a fantastic opportunity as an artist if I didn’t go on. But she also very much steered me that I had to perform in my fox outfit. I felt that they just wanted to make me into one of their novelty acts.”
With headhunting appearing to be a widespread practice on Britain’s Got Talent, it’s no surprise that they have no shortage of people on the show being embarrassed in front of an audience. If you find someone who is easy to laugh at and convince them that they’re going to be positively portrayed, you remove that hesitance to audition and get your footage with no obligation to pull the footage if the person is offended by their portrayal. This seems to be what happened to Superpowerless and it is likely we will see other acts this series who end up on the show as a ‘joke act’ in the same manner. Is it even reality TV if it’s this rigidly sculpted?
When I say that BGT have no obligation to pull footage of people who are offended by the way they are portrayed, if you click HERE you can take a look at the show’s entrance contact which all acts that appear on the programme are required to sign. The interesting part, and what allows them to exploit people and ignore complaints and requests that exploitative footage not be aired, can be found in the Contribution of Grants and Rights section.
Basically, if you cut through the legal jargon, this section means that all entrants sign away their right to any of the footage the show’s team capture, gives SyCo full copyright and ownership of said footage and states that you give them the right to not only exploit this footage of you in any way they like, but also any other footage or materials about you they find. Once you’ve signed, there’s no reason they would ever need to listen to your complaints about how you’re being portrayed, you signed away your right to not be exploited by a TV company that promised you it would show you in a positive light. Wonderfully, the contract makes it clear that the contract stays in effect “in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter invented throughout the universe.” That’s pretty comprehensive.
While we’ve chosen to publish this article, there have been several mainstream news outlets that wrote stories on this very topic that never made it to the public. While I cannot mention names in order to protect those involved, I’ve read articles by writers for prominent outlets discussing Oliver’s story, all of which were pulled after emails from Britain’s Got Talent. When Britain’s Got Talent were reached to for comment by these outlets they were told that running the story would cut that publication out of any advance coverage of the show in the future. The publications didn’t feel they could pay that price, and dropped the article. One publication in particular attempted to get a comment on the story from BGT, only to be told, “If you run that article or anything about this story we will pull all connections with your paper and you won’t have any access to the show in the future.”
My big question is why is this still the case? In this era of growing Geek Chic, why is it that we’re still the kid at school who the cool kids buy apple juice for which we have to spit out because it doesn’t taste like apple juice? Why does this happen in spite of the fact that an anime inspired band recently made it into the iTunes Top 10 Albums in the UK, showing that there is a real market for geek culture to sell? It likely comes down to the way that Geek culture is still something of a niche, it’s something the general public doesn’t understand, and as such it’s very easy to misrepresent.
I’ll let Oliver have the final word on the show and what he feels their agenda involves for geeky and nerdy acts. “I think that BGT in general is a show that gets ratings based on humiliating and embarrassing some people while putting others on a pedestal. Being able to pigeon-hole us as geeks and use the stereotypes surrounding that as a way of attacking us probably just seemed like an easy target. We knew it could go either way really easily which is why we wanted assurances that they wouldn’t show us in a negative light and turn us into a joke, even though they eventually amounted to nothing once we signed the contracts.”
Is there anything that we can do to change this cultural view that gamers and geeks are to be ashamed of? I don’t know. Is there something that we can do to make it so that those taking a career path, be they comic book artists, games developers or even unique musicians, can be taken seriously and not seen as less worthwhile? I don’t know. What I do know, is that it’s a real shame that geek culture, for all the revenue it’s now generating, is still looked down upon by mainstream media and by extension the general public.