'All these nannying health shows are making me ill' - Pat Stacey
Celebrity doctors are television's newest and most damaging disease, argues Pat Stacey.
Few will be have been even mildly surprised by the recent news that Ireland is among the top four nanny states in Europe – or if you care about personal freedom, the worst four.
The only shock in The Nanny State Index, compiled by six European think tanks and spearheaded by the British-based Institute of European Affairs, is that we didn’t finish in the top slot.
We’re actually fourth in terms of the stringency of our laws on alcohol, cigarettes and food; first, second and third place are taken by Finland, Sweden and our nearest neighbour Britain. For the record, the least nannyish state is the Czech Republic.
It’s unlikely you’d lose money betting that Ireland will move up a place or two on the next Nanny State Index once plain packaging on tobacco products, minimum alcohol pricing and the sugar tax come in.
But what has any of this to do with television? Quite a bit, actually. If national television is supposed to be a reflection of national life, then what it’s reflecting most vividly right now is the nanny complex.
Shrinking revenue, increased competition from subscription/streaming giants with money to burn, a radical change in viewing habits and a general decline in terrestrial audiences has put RTE and TV3 under increased pressure.
Typically, the response is never to push back by trying to produce imaginative programmes on a tight budget (TG4 is the lone Irish broadcaster doing this), but always to reach for lowest common denominator formats that are lazy, familiar, repetitive and cheap to produce.
In the midst of this mania to meddle in our private lives, the fastest-growing genre on Irish television is now the scaremongering health show.
Operation Transformation, which is off the air at the moment, has been described as a phenomenon. It certainly is.
Before it came along, I’d never encountered the strange phenomenon of a dreary piece of niche programming about weight loss being hyper-inflated to the status of a cross-media flagship entertainment series, whose return is invariably marked with a cover on the RTE Guide.
Currently on a second series is TV3’s Doctor in the House. In this, three medics invade the home of a different family each week, spend some time shaking their head disapprovingly at their bad habits and shadowing them as they do their weekly supermarket shop, and then advise them on how to get healthier.
I wrote about this when it first appeared two years ago, and I make no apology for quoting my own column. I called the programme “nauseating” and “aggressively condescending” in its attitude to the families involved. My opinion hasn’t changed.
Less irritating than either of the above is RTE’s What Are You Eating? Presented by Philip Boucher-Hayes, this is essentially about educating (as opposed to lecturing) viewers on the sometimes unpleasant ingredients in our daily food.
But telling us that farmhouse cheese is much better than the cheaper, more processed supermarket variety fails to address a basic disconnect: that food choices for people trying to live on an income considerably less than that of an RTE journalist or a qualified medic are frequently dictated by economic necessity, not health concerns.
In the end, the ones who benefit most from hectoring, nannying programmes like these aren’t the overweight, unhealthy participants who subject themselves to the humiliating scrutiny of the cameras, but the people presenting them.
As I pointed out in the 2014 column, Doctor in the House’s photogenic Dr Sinead Beirne has gone beyond being a mere medic to being a celebrity whose name is on the books of a talent agency.
She’s following in the footsteps of former Operation Transformation supervillain Dr Eva Orsmond, a woman whose loud, abrasive personality unfailingly makes me want to wrap my television in candy floss and set it alight.
Orsmond, who operates six weight-loss clinics around the country, has parlayed bullying unpleasantness (she infamously reduced an Operation Transformation volunteer to tears) into a lucrative career as a TV star and author.
Orsmond, by the way, is from Finland, the nanny state table topper. No surprise there, either.