January 26, 2020
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The Diminishing Returns Of Beauty

It’s really not political correctness but dwindling ad budgets and viewership that’s forced beauty pageants off western TV screens

The Diminishing Returns Of Beauty

IF you can’t turn on your television set in Britain to watch a beauty contest, it’s not because the West has evolved to a higher sphere of social consciousness. It just has ceased to be profitable for the TV companies. And if a Miss Great Britain contest evokes little esteem (the contests are nevertheless held), it says more about the power of TV than any political correctness of the times. "It was not a moral decision," says Sandra Moore from the Women’s National Commission of Britain, a government department. ‘There were just not enough people watching.’ And so advertisers were not getting their money’s worth. Britain’s ITV finally took a decision to stop broadcasting such pageants. Caught between the two, ITV had been spending more than it was earning on showing the allegedly bold and the beautiful.

‘That was hundreds of thousands of pounds a year,’ says Roy Addison who was among the ITV executives who took the final decision to stop the broadcasts. ITV had bought rights to broadcast the beauty contests for six years from 1980 to 1986, through two three-year contracts. "In 1980 we approached BBC TV which had bought rights for the previous 10 years," said Addison, formerly with ITV and now with Thames TV. "We had to pay a lot of money to the organisers of the shows, so in effect we were sponsoring the contest," he said.

But over the second half of the three-year contracts from 1983 to 1986, "the programme lost popularity, the number of people watching kept going down." There was also, according to Addison, a tide of people turning against the programme in terms of political correctness. The two factors, he said, "combined together and so at the end of the last contract in 1986, there was no doubt that we would not renew."

It is difficult to decide which of the two factors outweighed the other, says Addison. "But one led to the other." That connection has implications not many in Britain would swear by. That the British have become too politically correct to watch a programme which shows disrespect to womanhood. This seems hardly likely. The supreme popularity of The Sun with its ever present titillating pictures page three, the soaring sales of Sunday Sport and News of the World with more than that dash of sleaze are not the successes of a society that has risen above judging women by horizontal inches and the accident of appearance. "Maybe the shows were not sleazy enough," says an Indian feminist in London inclined to be as cynical about British men as of others.

If London has anything near those parades, it is the catwalks at the London fashion week where models annually wear less than they reveal, and where a favourite way to show off a dress is to take it off. The hooting from the photographers’ gallery would silence claims of modern evolution, if any such claims were made.

The tinsel and glitz faded from the beauty contests once the TV cameras turned away and with them their lights and their money. No one can answer that ‘What if?’ question with certainty. But if viewership had been rising and ad money piling up, the boardrooms at ITV might well not have sacrificed profits for political correctness. ‘It is a point of principle,’ says Carol Milward from ITV. The principle was made easier by a decline of profits.

The Miss Great Britain contest is consequently a side show somewhere, a regional TV story for a drab English town flattered by a touch of glitter and glamour. "We don’t broadcast Miss Britain contests because it is not a big enough event," says a manager from Sky Television. But Sky does broadcast the Miss World shows which promoters like to pump up as ‘pageants’.

And so in India as in Britain, this looks like a battle that will have to be won not on the streets of a Bangalore but in the scenario of dwindling ad budgets and an increasingly disinterested viewership. An empty box office can work more wonders than rabid feminists of the likes of Ms Sashikala can. And the now corporate Amitabh Bachchan is much more likely to be moved by loss of money than the loss of a life. 

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