Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Audience (Channel 4 TV) Episode 1 - Reality TV meets Wise Decision-Making ???



The Apprentice, Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity .... let's face it, Reality TV shows are one of the phenomena of the century. Whilst it's very easy to be snobbish about such programmes, the viewing figures suggest that very many people enjoy watching them.

So it was probably only a matter of time before two unlikely bedfellows, Reality TV and Philosophy, came together. Channel Four's new show The Audience (Thursdays at 2100) does just that. Every week someone with an intractable dilemma puts themselves at  the mercy of 50 - yes, fifty, people - "The Audience" - who follow the victim decision-maker around for a week - and then make the decision for them. As other reviewers  have commented, the whole idea sounds absurd, a reduction ad absurdum of Reality TV.  Yet, on the evidence of the first show, the formula was strangely compelling.

This article is not a review of The Audience so much as an attempt to look at to what extent, if any, it  is likely to produce wise decisions. It's not a question he programme spent any time at all analyzing, but, if you think about it, it is a pretty key question -especially from the point of view of the main protagonist.

When I said earlier that The Audience sees "Reality TV meeting Philosophy", that isn't actually 100% true. There wasn't any explicit philosophy in The Audience. Maybe there has to be a warning at the start of a programme these days -  "Warning. This programme contains explicit philosophy. People who find the idea of people thinking disturbing may wish to change channels now".  The 50 people constituting the audience didn't appear to contain any philosophers, psychotherapists, or even priests or anyone else with any specialist knowledge of wise decision-making. The concept here was not Plato's "Rule of the Wise" but more that of a (somewhat oversized)  jury - 50 people plucked from all walks of life to listen to all the evidence and reach a verdict.

As a counsellor and coach who specialises in helping people make wise decisions,  frankly I was very sceptical about the whole conceit. The model of wise decision-making I use makes sure that a broad range of questions are asked and issues considered.  These include

  • What exactly is the situation? What are the facts that a good investigative reporter would get from you? What exactly is the decision to be made?
  • What emotions are present both when you are in "limbo" and when you consider either alternative? Are these emotions existential messages about what is important to you, or do they involve cognitive distortions to be untwisted?
  • What important values are at stake? How will your well-being be impacted by either option? What are your responsibilities? Who else is affected by the decision? What are your duties to them?
  • What options do you have? Is it possible to find a "win-win" option which satisfies as many as possible as the important values at stake?
  • Choosing wisely. Choose the option that satisfies the most important values.
  • What do you need to do to implement the wisest option? Are there still emotions holding you back from carrying it out? Do you find yourself on a see-saw of conflicting emotions whenever you commit to one option? Do you need to persuade others?
So how did The Audience do? It has to be said they did a very incomplete job.  Let's have a look at each in turn
  • Understanding the Situation. This they did quite well. We learnt  that Ian was 48 years old, had been brought up  by his uncles on the farm, had a girlfriend, Sandy, who was being neglected because of his responsibilities to the farm, was paid the minimum wage .... We understood that Ian had to choose between his uncles and his girlfriend - there was no way he could keep the farm and the girl.
  • Exploring emotions.  We certainly got to explore the emotions of the audience. There was hardly a dry eye in the house as they heard about how his uncles had brought him up and how they believed their lives would be over if Ian deserted them.  They didn't ask Ian out his own emotions, but it was pretty clear that he was experiencing extreme guilt at the prospect of leaving his uncles -made worse by his mother's forceful reminding  him of the debt he owed them. He was also feeling very frustrated at their interference and concerned that he would lose his girlfriend if he chose to stay at the farm. The Audience didn't ask a question that was surely key -  "Do you love your girlfriend?", though this was perhaps answered for them at the end of the show. Nor did they help him clarify whether these emotions were justified or not - since he had spent five years helping them on the farm already, was his guilt justified, especially if he made arrangements for the uncles to be supported without him doing all the farm work for them. 
  • Understanding what matters. The Audience grasped that there was a conflict between Ian's well-being and his staying on the farm. But we didn't learn whether Ian got something positive from being on the farm. Did he just stay on the farm  out of guilt? Or was there something positive for him about being connected to nature and animals and returning to his roots? We also learnt that the uncle's well-being mattered. However we didn't really learn to what extent this depended on them staying on the farm and having Ian as their worker.  They also failed to make a key distinction between Ian's duties and responsibilies as a nephew and his duty to the farm.  Yes, he had duties to his uncles - but these these really extend to being a slave to the farm?
  • Exploring Options. The show presented this as a stark dilemma - either stay on the farm or abandon your uncles. But were there other options - such as the uncles employing someone else, Ian working on the farm part-time, or Ian being passed control of the farm? Or perhaps his  mother could look after her brothers instead of Ian ...
  • Making and Implementing a wise decision that satisfies most of what matters.  Unfortunately we didn't really see The Audience's deliberations.  However, they came up with what appeared to be a wise decision - that he should leave. The closing scenes gave us a happy ending - Ian proposing to Sandy and his uncles moving nearby, being supported by his family and being in close contact with Ian.
So should I abandon my decision coaching practice and tell clients to sign up to being on Reality TV instead? I think this judgement would be a little premature at present. On reflection, the decision does seem a bit of a no brainer. Of course Ian had to leave the farm. Of course he had to do what he could to ensure the uncle's well-being.
Ian didn't really need a wise decision he knew what he should do. What he wanted to do was avoid the responsibility of making the decision. What better than to get fifty people to tell him what to do? You could say that the process of The Audience was a great way of getting Ian to implement the wise decision (step 5 of the decision-making process) - though there might be other, simpler ways to helping people accept responsibility?

Will the wisdom of the crowd be in evidence next time? I can't wait to see. So much so I will be writing a live blog about it - on this site ( and also on my twitter feed - @timlebon

Hope to see you then

Reviews of The Audience
The Independent  " The Audience, despite its surreal, seemingly flawed, set-up is actually one of the freshest, most absorbing TV shows I've seen on for a long time. "
Radio Times  "Fifty people following someone, making life decisions for them – this reality-TV gimmick had 
emotional power"
The Guardian "I could easily imagine such a show being absolutely terrible (to be honest, I did imagine it being absolutely terrible), but this was executed with considerable skill and sensitivity. The Audience appeared to take their responsibility seriously, deliberating like jurors,"

Wise Decision-Making    Site constructed by David Arnaud, Antonia Macaro and myself describing the stages of our Progress model, with plenty of case illustrations.

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