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Spare me the violin

Judge: Tell me about your childhood.

Possible response 1:
Contestant: My
[mum|dad|granddad|grandma] passed away when I was [enter age]. [He|she] always loved it when I [sing|dance|cook]. Oh, I can’t believe I’m so emotional about this still. I’m doing this for you, [mum|dad|granddad|grandma]!

Possible response 2:
Contestant: I was always considered as an outcast. I got bullied a lot when I was at school … [singing|cooking|dancing] was my way of coping with the situation.

Tugging viewers’ emotional string is one of the extra ingredients that make reality shows useful. It awakens our instinct to empathise with them and it also makes us willing to invest our emotions and interest with them throughout their journey in the competition. When Paul Potts wowed the jury on Britain’s Got Talents in 2007, the whole world tuned in and invested their emotions on him. Similarly, when Susan Boyle reached her high notes with Les Miserables’ I Dreamed A Dream in Britain’s Got Talents in 2009, everybody took notice. While they are both talented performers, one of the reasons why every man and his dog wanted them to win was because they heard the story about their troubled years. Their stories made us interested in them and they also made us want to follow their journey. This, for advertisers and television programmers, equates big dollars.

Unfortunately, now every reality show seems to emphasise this aspect – almost too much. It’s like when you discover that putting a little bit of cinnamon does wonder in your hot chocolate or coffee, now you insist on putting a pinch of cinnamon in every beverage that you make, whether it works or not.

I am getting sick of the sad stories whenever I switch the channel to MasterChef Australia. All these talks and discussions about cooking their uncle’s-late-postman’s-grandfather’s favourite dish, or that cooking is their reason to live (with tears streaming down their face). It is charming the first few times around, but if the same formula is repeated over and over again, we realise that we are being duped. We are being emotionally manipulated. It was similar when I watched So You Think You Can Dance earlier this year – all the sorry stories about troubled childhood and teenage years. Whilst I sympathised with them, but if nearly all of the contestants had troubled childhood, is there a place for a dancer who had a perfect upbringing?

Don’t get me wrong – I still love programmes such as Find My Family or Who Do You Think You Are? that deals with emotional issues and yet carefully skirts around manipulative techniques. Taking advantage of viewers’ engagement and emotional involvement is an art. You cannot over-replicate and overuse the same formula, there needs to be different nuances to each iteration. We don’t like being taken for a ride.

Spare me the violin, shut up and [sing|dance|cook].

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