The TV shows at the frontline of the culture wars

David Brown
·5-min read
GMB, BGT and DOI have all inspired Ofcom complaints in recent years (PA/ITV/BBC)
GMB, BGT and DOI have all inspired Ofcom complaints in recent years (PA/ITV/BBC)

There was a very telling line in Susanna Reid’s statement on Piers Morgan’s sudden departure from Good Morning Britain this week. After referring to her co-host as a “disruptive broadcaster”, Reid went on to say that “some of you may cheer, others will boo” in reaction to his exit. Proof, if any was needed, of how polarising Morgan has become.

There are no shades of grey when it comes to feelings about Morgan. And, arguably, not much in the way of nuance in his own arguments. For the last five years, his strident views have been lobbed like a grenade into cereal bowls over breakfast before getting an action-replay on social media, often shaping the news agenda for the rest of the morning.

And while that link between Morgan, GMB and Twitter was key to his success, it also proved — in this instance — to be his undoing. A public figure with 7.8 million followers is impossible to ignore, and there will be some who agree with his divisive take on Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Indeed, a recent YouGov survey found that, above the age of 50, sympathies were markedly in favour of the senior royals over the Duchess of Sussex.

Read more: Susanna Reid takes day off from GMB

But a sizeable swathe of viewers, alive to perceived injustice and often engaged in passionate debate online about news coverage, called Morgan out on his words. As regulator Ofcom revealed, 41,000 complained about Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain, which saw Morgan brand Harry and Meghan as “contemptible”.

Watch: Why did Piers Morgan leave Good Morning Britain?

A conclusion has yet to be reached by the watchdog, and it has to be noted that a large number of complaints is not necessarily an indicator of broadcasting rules having been broken. But Morgan’s departure has certainly galvanised those who felt that his firebrand form of journalism was at odds with a TV channel regulated by Ofcom.

This latest storm is, though, just one example of television becoming the focal point in our culture war. Over the last decade and a half, as the media landscape has become more fractured, opinionated personalities have had to yell louder in order to be heard. And there are those who feel that the result is a coarsening of TV output that’s been stripped of subtlety. Just consider the bear-pit mentality of Celebrity Big Brother or the regular eruptions on Loose Women.

Watch: Diversity perform BLM routine on BGT

Shiny floor shows that were once considered escapist fare can now also contain an element of social commentary. Would-be skater Rufus Hound was seen recently on Dancing on Ice making a dig at the government’s policy on free school meals (Ofcom received over 300 complaints), while the dancers of Diversity crafted a routine influenced by Black Lives Matter for Britain’s Got Talent.

Read more: Britain's Got Talent complaints surpass 10,000 after Diversity's Black Lives Matter dance

But despite a backlash by some fans of BGT, Ofcom concluded that Diversity were calling for “social cohesion and unity”, a statement which hinted that viewers perhaps ought to have been more offended by the crime committed against George Floyd than the performance his death inspired.

Rufus Hound. Dancing On Ice 2021 (ITV)
Rufus Hound is competing in Dancing On Ice. (ITV)

What’s undeniable, though, is that TV is no mere passive form of entertainment. An Ofcom spokesperson told Yahoo that “there had recently been an increase in complaints”, a state of affairs that can be partly attributed to more TV being consumed during lockdown and the relative simplicity of submitting an online form.

But it perhaps also points to a society more willing to cry foul when the arguments presented to them on TV clash with their own. Viewers — be they disenfranchised, politically aware, influenced by social media or a blend of all these factors — no longer perceive television as the box in the corner to which they must defer.

Morgan recognised this swell of public feeling and harnessed its potential but has now been left without his breakfast TV pulpit. On this occasion, viewers did the seemingly impossible and managed to shout even louder than him.

The most complained about TV shows

In this Aug.17, 2008 photograph, Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, right, is seen with British tabloid celebrity Jade Goody, on the set of the reality show Big Boss, in Mumbai, India. Goody has been diagnosed with cancer and will leave India where she is filming a reality show to receive treatment in London, television officials said Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008. (AP Photo)
Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty on the set of the reality show Big Boss, in Mumbai, India. (AP)

Celebrity Big Brother race row (2007)

Channel 4 was found to have made “serious editorial misjudgments” during broadcasts of a series of CBB that saw Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara target fellow contestant and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. A total of 45,000 viewers took issue and C4 broadcast a series of apologies.

Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain (2021)

The host’s incendiary comment that he “didn’t believe a word” of what the Duchess of Sussex had told Oprah Winfrey earned him 41,000 complaints to Ofcom. The regulator has now announced an investigation, while Morgan has parted ways with GMB.

Diversity on Britain’s Got Talent (2020)

Dance group Diversity’s performance inspired by the death of George Floyd received 24,500 complaints, but the conclusion was ultimately reached that the episode of BGT in question did not raise issues that warranted investigation under the Broadcasting Code.

Roxanne Pallett on Celebrity Big Brother (2018)

Roxanne Pallett has left CBB. (REX/Shutterstock)
Roxanne Pallett left CBB . (REX/Shutterstock)

An incident that saw the ex-Emmerdale star accuse housemate Ryan Thomas of assault became the most complained-about moment of the 2010s, with more than 25,000 contacting the watchdog. The Channel 5 reality show was eventually cleared, with Ofcom saying that CBB had shown the “consequences” of Pallett’s actions.

Kim Woodburn on Loose Women (2018)

A heated showdown between Coleen Nolan and guest Kim Woodburn on the lunchtime show also angered 8,000 TV-watchers, though Ofcom ruled that the set-to did not exceed “what regular viewers would have expected of a live edition of Loose Women”.