Greasy polls

by royalpavilion

Last autumn the respected French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma published a poll conducted among 78 film critics and historians to select the ‘100 films for an ideal archive’. The list caused some consternation on this side of the Channel because it included not one British film. A matter of opinion and French opinion on matters of films is unlikely to coincide with that of others. Even so, the effect of that apparent slight was mitigated to some extent by the fact that the second film on the list, The Night of the Hunter, was directed by a Brit, Charles Laughton. In a separate list of the 50 greatest film-makers, the second and the fourth were also British-born: Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin. Curiously, five of the top directors were born in Austria, although Austria is not conventionally considered a great film-making nation.

Another poll that could be said to be a matter of opinion is one commissioned by Sony, described as being among 3,000 UK respondents to find the ‘most memorable/favourite “World First” moment caught on TV’. The results, published today (28 January), in descending order are:

  1. Moon landing (1969)
  2. First inauguration of an African American president (2009)
  3. Televised assassination of a president (1963)
  4. Dolly, the world first cloned sheep
  5. First test tube/IVF baby (July 1978 )
  6. First images from a satellite—Sputnik
  7. First flight—100 years ago
  8. First ‘male’ pregnancy
  9. Four minute mile—Roger Bannister (1956)
  10. First televised coronation—King George VI (1936)
  11. First 3d crop circle (found 11 July 2006)
  12. First Queen Speech (1952)
  13. First televised football match (1938 )
  14. First UK election (1950)
  15. First use of test card (July 1967)
  16. Elvis’ world first TV appearance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show
  17. First black Oscar winner—Sidney Poitier
  18. First live sporting event—Olympics (1936)
  19. First Eurovision song contest winner—Lugano, Switzerland (1956)
  20. First televised beauty competition—Miss Universe (1955)

I do not express opinions on polls, however contentious, on the Terra Media site. But this one is so spectacularly bizarre that it cannot pass without comment.

The Wright Brothers caught on television

The Wright Brothers caught on television

In fact, it can be dismissed as literally incredible, mainly because of its origins. It seems it was compiled on the basis of a list of images for a video production rather than by historical research. How far down the list did you read before thinking there was something odd? You may have raised an eyebrow over number 4 and the other eyebrow at number 5, but my guess is your jaw dropped at number 7. The Wright Brothers’ first flight ‘caught on TV’?

Several entries are events on US television that were not seen on UK television, some perhaps not even subsequently. Sputnik issued only a beep, no pictures. The first test cards were transmitted in the mid 1930s, not 1967. The ‘Queen Speech’ (correctly Christmas message to the Commonwealth) was first televised in 1957, not 1952 when it was only on the wireless. The UK did not participate in the first Eurovision Song Contest. There was no coronation in 1936 and the one in 1937 was seen on television by 50,000 people tops. Yet millions saw the 1953 Coronation, which produced a surge in television sales that Sony could only dream of today. Oh, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight was not televised as even primitive television was still 20 year away. Even Sony thinks the list may be suspect as the press release for the listing notes that there is no recording of the first televised UK election. Nor is there of that first television football match, which was an England v Scotland international, a couple of weeks before the first FA Cup Final from Wembley was show in its entirety.

Television is perhaps the most nationally distinctive of all media, perhaps even more so for everyone than films are for the French. Preferences in programming, perhaps also for historical events, reflect these boundaries. But if anyone anywhere in the world were asked to name several memorable TV moments, most of the above list would never arise. So how could this happen? Simple. The list of events offered  to respondents from which to make multiple selections was drawn up on the basis of images that were to be used in a three-minute promotional video for a Sony product launch.

The aim was obviously to attract attention to the product. The poll has done that, albeit not as successfully as intended (at least in this space). Fortunately for the sponsor, Sony, the product—a new range of Bravia TV sets—will suffer no setbacks because of a spurious poll. Indeed, with luck the poll will probably pass almost unnoticed, except for this space and in The Sun, which did not seem to notice the anomalies and commented only on the absence of Lily Allen from the list. So no harm done.

Yet one day fifty years from now, a media historian will discover the reports and wonder what to make of them. This should at least make us media historians of today think twice about the validity of evidence from the past. Was Madonna of the Seven Moons really the third most popular film of the war years in Britain? According to the Daily Mail in 1946 it was.