Why didn’t people watch Comic Relief this year?

By Katie Lewis

It has been revealed that Comic Relief 2019, which was broadcast on the Friday the 15th of March, saw a dramatic decrease in both viewing figures and donations. Donations fell by £8 million this year, accompanied by 600,000 fewer viewers. With the figures of Comic Relief’s sister event Sport Relief also suffering in recent years, I think it’s important to question why public opinion toward the broadcast fundraisers has changed. This year’s Comic Relief was jam-packed with Hollywood royalty including appearances from Hugh Grant and Lily James, so why weren’t as many people tuning in? Is traditional broadcast fundraising problematic and behind the times?

Comic Relief’s lack of public support this year could be partly attributed to the criticism that the event attracted before the show aired that Friday night. During the run up to the charity broadcast, Labour MP David Lammy criticised Comic Relief for reducing the portrayal of Africa to ‘poverty porn’. He requested that in future, Comic Relief should better represent Africa by promoting voices from across the continent – in turn creating a more informed and serious debate. Lammy claimed he, and other black Britons, felt that the celebrity expeditions to Africa, which are aired during the programme, create a distorted image of the continent and enforce negative stereotypes. Lammy then labelled Stacey Dooley a ‘white saviour’ after a picture was posted of her posing with an African child during the expedition. This implies that famous figures like Stacey Dooley use the expedition as an opportunity to prove their heroism. The backlash that Comic Relief faced could have definitely made viewers think twice before tuning in.

Another reason why viewing and donation figures have suffered this year could be that viewers don’t feel as empathetic toward the cause. Unfortunately, I think the stories that we hear on the programme don’t hold enough shock value anymore. A decade ago, seeing images of impoverished and sick children would have been enough to shock viewers into donating. However, with TV and social media being so saturated with images of famine, sickness and poverty, I believe that the viewing public have become desensitised. It is all too easy for western spectators to ignore a distant crisis, because if we change the channel on Red Nose Day, all the suffering disappears. Whilst studying the reporting of crisis in one of my modules, I have learnt that although spectators (like viewers of Comic Relief) feel compassion towards distant suffering, it doesn’t always impact us long-term. For example, when Comic Relief aired, viewers may at first have felt passionately moved by the stories they were presented with. But after the programme finishes, our lives go back to normal and we forget about the suffering and become consumed by our own tedious problems instead.

I think that the way forward, in order to boost donations and viewers, is to revamp certain aspects of Comic Relief. The ethics surrounding the ‘celebs visit Africa’ stint are questionable and it has definitely been overdone – so maybe David Lammy is right, and the charity should just focus on those at the heart of the crisis. Maybe then it would feel more real, and we would be compelled, by our human nature, to pick up the phone.

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