Series Two of ITV’s much-maligned game show Red or Black has run into trouble before it has even started, as anger mounts over its sponsorship deal with payday-loans company Wonga. The show – in which people compete to win a million-pound jackpot – was launched in September last year and started strongly, before attracting criticism for apparently lacking any skill element whatsoever: winning the top prize was down to pure luck.
Viewers followed the critics, and an initial audience of 8 million plummeted to just 3.8m by the end of its run, with the show even beaten by the BBC’s Watchdog. It was also dogged by inadequately vetted contestants – including a jackpot winner who had previously been jailed for a violent attack.
Despite these managerial failures, Red or Black was recommissioned: almost certainly due to ITV’s desire to keep on good terms with the show’s creator Simon Cowell, the man responsible for two of the network’s biggest hits in The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. In the new series, contestants will apparently use some element of skill and judgement, but the premise is broadly the same. However, the announcement of Wonga as the show’s sponsor has set in motion a backlash that ITV could have done well without.
While entirely legal, Wonga has attracted widespread criticism thanks to its huge interest rates and use of aggressive and misleading debt-collection methods. Typical APRs are 4,214% – and Labour MP Stella Creasy has led a two-and-a-half-year battle against the firm, campaigning to cap the cost of obtaining credit in the UK. Creasy has contacted the show’s popular presenters Ant and Dec on Twitter, in an attempt to encourage them to come out against the sponsors – but the tactic has not worked so far, with the duo’s publicists moving to distance them from any executive involvement.
It may well be the case that ITV’s management is playing a shrewd game: enduring a turkey in order to keep their star man happy and – knowing full well that the show will attract criticism regardless – taking Wonga’s money and running.