How “Benefits Street” Became The Most-Talked About Show On TV

Poverty on TV is always a touchy subject.

1. Channel 4’s Benefits Street is hitting the headlines at the moment, but what’s the big deal?

Channel 4 prides itself on challenging viewers with risky and thought-provoking factual programmes and drama.

But like the string of Big Fat Gypsy shows before it, Benefit Street risks veering from controversy into scandal, with its depiction of socially and economically poor people living on James Turner Street in inner-city Birmingham.

From petty criminals and shoplifters to families in a cycle of benefit dependency and a three-bed house packed with Romanian immigrants, it paints quite a picture.

It’s also Channel 4’s biggest hit for a long time, picking up 5.1 million viewers on Monday night, according to BARB - three million more views than the channel usually gets at that time. The last C4 show to pull that kind of audience was The Snowman and the Snowdog on Christmas Eve 2012.

2. “There are 99 houses, 13 nationalities and most of the residents are claiming benefits,” the narrator says at the start of each episode.

Channel 4

3. This week the show focused on Romanian labourers, who felt they had come to the country on a false promise of work.

Channel 4

4. It was controversial before it even aired. Birmingham-born comedian Frank Skinner was asked to narrate the show, but said no because he “didn’t want to be derogatory about the people in Birmingham”.

Getty Images / Ian Gavan

5. One scene features recovering drug addict “Fungi” attempting (but failing) to steal a satnav from an ASDA delivery van. West Midlands Police said it was deciding whether the show contained any criminal activity.

 

8. A petition calling for the show to be axed has reached 40,000 signatures and Ofcom has received almost 500 complaints.


There is a widespread feeling that the show is exploiting poor people rather than highlighting the issues they face.

13. Richard McKerrow, Love Productions’s creative director, rejects the accusation that he’s making “poverty porn”.


If you are telling me that shining a light on poverty in Britain is pornographic, so we shouldn’t pay attention to poor people, I think that’s outrageous. It’s just a term being trotted out by people who want to have a bash at television. The notion that the show represents people on benefits around Britain is not accurate; we never say that. We were focusing on a particular group of characters living on a street in Birmingham.

14. Probably the strongest criticism of the show is that it’s not really about benefits at all, just people living in poverty, as Dame Anne Begg, chair of the House of Commons work and pensions committee, told BBC Radio 4:


What struck me is that it was called Benefits Street and then three-quarters or more of the programme actually followed one storyline which was about a petty criminal and shoplifter and how he lived on the proceeds of his crime, rather than the reality of what people face when they live on benefits.

Through the programme, there were occasional glimpses of the community and the kindliness and help they all give to one another, but that was very, very marginal in the programme. It concentrated on one storyline that wasn’t really about benefits.

15. But it plays straight into some politicians’ plans to re-work the welfare state. Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith praised the show in a House of Commons debate.

Getty Images

16. This is upsetting to many. But Channel 4 could argue that its job is to annoy people, to some extent.


The channel’s remit as a public service broadcaster is dependent on it commissioning programming which “demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes” and “exhibits a distinctive character”. It likes to ruffle feathers.

It’s clear that Benefits Street’s negative and positive media attention has added to its audience - and that it was a savvy and timely piece of TV commissioning with a headline-grabbing title. TV shows have to shout louder to get noticed now.

As Love Films’s McKerrow puts it: “Now you have to find different, innovative ways of making sure that serious issues stay in peak. I often get, ‘you have made it noisy because you are trying to bring in an audience, you tried to entertain’. I say, ‘if you are looking at me to apologise for trying to entertain you, you are talking to the wrong guy’.”

Yet, the size and role of the welfare state is one of biggest political issues of this decade - so is Benefits Street public affairs journalism or entertainment, or an uneasy mixture of the two?

In any case, whether the show’s makers have given a fair representation of the people featured is something media regulator Ofcom may yet have to rule on.

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