Rigging the audience reaction?

I was reading in one of the weekend papers that a fox hunting debate was recently cancelled on the Late, Late Show, but that the show’s producers hope to rearrange it for the near future. The article noted that those interested in the debate would be organising themselves in advance of the debate in order to dominate the phone lines with their opinion. One quick Google result later and I stumbled across this thread on Boards.ie, which serves as a good example about how easy it is for anyone to try to do this.

I have no interest in this debate, but I am interested in how groups that organise themselves can to influence the public perception on debates of national interest. Typing this I am watching Questions and Answers, RTE’s topical debate television programme. It seems obvious that supporters from the various political parties are in the audience each week vigorously defending the side of whatever cause is being discussed that night.

Wondering out loud – is this lack of transparency slightly dangerous? In fairness to the show’s host John Bowman, he does point out people’s affiliation from time to time, but if a number of audience members react in a similar fashion it gives the impression that the general public holds a particular opinion. This also influences people’s impressions watching the show at home.

For example, the ongoing debate about Bertie Ahern’s finances was aired a couple of weeks ago. A number of members of the audience vigorously defended the Taoiseach, yet his approval rating has fallen below that of Enda Kenny, leader of the Opposition rival for the first time, clearly indicating that the public is concerned about revelations unfolding in the Mahon Tribunal.

How do you ensure a fair debate though when vested interests are in the crowd or have their fingers ready by their phones at home?

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5 Responses to “Rigging the audience reaction?”  

  1. 1 Emmet Ryan

    The Q&A vs Late Late Show situation is a good clash of the same problem. Q&A is flawed but at least most people know it’s full of plants, the Late Late isn’t so transparent and that in fairness is not the fault of the show as it doesn’t try to facilitate the interests of those involved.

    In the case of Q&A, I’d love it to follow the example of Question Time in the UK (which is an excellent show). There are usually some plants at Question Time but never to the same extent. More important than that though is the fact that Question Time travels around the UK giving more people from more locations an opportunity to take part, generally leading to more diverse debate.

    The one time I recall Q&A leaving Montrose was for a special in Tara a couple of years ago and it was great. The studio bosses mightn’t have been fond of it but the anger in the air gave a feel of authenticity to it. I’m not looking for such a bloodthirsty bunch every week, indeed that would be counter productive, but moving the show around the major towns and cities in Ireland would definitely give it a less staid feel.

    The counter argument of course is that guests mightn’t be fond of travelling for the event but does anyone really believe someone is going to say no on account of a long journey if they know a rival will be appearing? The risk is too high and they’d tow the line eventually.

  2. 2 Piaras

    Agreee with you on moving the show around.

  3. 3 Keith Morrison

    Thanks for sharing the Boards.ie link.

    What immediately struck me was the poster is fairly active on the forum (997 posts) and was fairly neutral in posting the information. I’m not sure which side of the debate he/she was on but it did start a debate within the online equestrian community. First 10 or so at least seem to be mixed on both sides.

    It’s seems like good stakeholder engagement. And you’re right it shows what can be done, if you’re already a respected member of an online group. Otherwise, it’s just the same as walking up cold to a group of people in a pub…

    I’m not sure the telephone-in or answers from the studio audience interaction works any more on TV – I’ve always found it jars. Haven’t seen Questions & Answers in a long time (thankfully!) but seem to remember them reading out text messages? Would be great to see RTE embrace technology more using live online forums…and integrating them into the programs…if they’re not already. Use a screener and build in a time delay.

  4. 4 Piaras

    For the life of me I can’t remember if Q&A is broadcast live or if it’s on delay already.

  5. 5 Padraig

    Piaras, Hi. Q&A is on a delay – it’s recorded and hour or two earlier than transmission. As I understand each of the major political parties are actually sent a certain number of tickets each week.

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Piaras Kelly
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