If you’ve ever attended the Edinburgh Fringe in full, you’ll likely have noticed that there’s a peculiar habit performers have, where they stick little pieces of paper across the posters for their shows as the month goes on.
Yes. In an effort to promote shows, it’s commonplace and in fact largely encouraged for companies to make sure that the latest review scores are reflected on the posters. Or at least, the good reviews. This is a practice that has been happening for the last decade and it’s not just the companies and the PR folk who get a kick from this.
For a critic, there’s nothing quite so gratifying as seeing your words, or at the very least the score & publication name, gracing a poster. It lets you know that not only have your words and thoughts been heard by the performers and techies, it also gives you some tangible feedback that you aren’t bloody mad, and maybe, just maybe know what you’re talking about.
Of course there is a darker side to all of this. It’s hardly unheard of for a reviewer or publication, in any media field, to give a review with a ridiculously high score & snappy praise just to “make the box quote”. Hell, you only need to glance at the average brainless action movie with the inevitable “Film of the Year” comment from a rag like The Star, to see what I mean in action. I’ve seen it happen in movies, in the videogames industry and yes, most certainly within Theatre.
Top billing on a poster means big hits on the website, or more purchases of the paper, as theatre goers see the name of the publication emblazoned on the quote-slip. So naturally it makes a lot of sense to ensure that if you rate a show highly then you say something clever to praise it.
The problem with this, is the same issue with Star ratings in any critical review. It’s a gross oversimplification at worst and a facile tool at best. While I don’t disagree with their use in a cascade of shows such as the Fringe, in general, they’re best avoided, as they detract from the likelihood that the reader will bother truly taking in the text of the review. But they are a necessary evil. Tolerated, utilised, or exploited by all concerned.
But what happens when someone decides to change the game? Which is exactly what has happened this year, as the Edinburgh Evening News has decided to eschew the traditional 5-star concept. Their new plan, the brainchild of editor Liam Rudden, is to replace the old 5 star standard with a 7-star system. The idea being to more easily differentiate between the standards of shows, without resorting to using half-stars. Certainly a bold move, and an unusual one, to the extent that this is not a system being replicated by the EEN’s mother publication, The Scotsman Newspaper herself.
Naturally this came as a bit of a shock this morning. Although The List had an amusing take on the news, sending up the idea with a fake post about a new 17 star rating system, opining that more stars were inevitably better. While there were also some comments made that the entire 7 star escapade was merely a satirical joke, I think it’s plainly the case that in fact it isn’t a joke at all. It’s actually a horribly cynical move, entirely designed to upset the usual system and artificially inflate the Evening News’ presence in the minds, media and on posters.
The sad fact is that arbitarily deciding to move the goal posts to a higher number of stars simply devalues the meaning of the system. Everyone used the 5 -star system precisely because it allowed everyone to simply know at a glance what a score meant. By making the maximum score 7, you’d theoretically be changing the midpoint in quality to 4 instead of 3 But that isn’t the case as according to their guide.
* – Avoid
* * – Poor
* * * – Average (errrm what?)
* * * * – Good
* * * * * – Great
* * * * * * – Something (e)Special(ly daft)
* * * * * * * – Supreme (ly stupid)
Now either someone at the EEN failed basic maths somewhere along the line, or as seems more likely, they’ve simply added in two higher tiers to the existing 5 star system. Of course, what will actually happen is the middle ratings will simply become interchangable, and the top ratings will go to previously 5 starred shows. So why would anyone do that? Here’s where the cynicism really comes in.
If you rate a show 6 or 7 stars, and everyone else rates up to a maximum of 5, then you’ll almost certainly get on EVERY poster you rate highly. What’s more, you’re in effect devaluing the rest of the scores, by insisting that yours are somehow “better”.
In the end, I think it’s a cynical move as well as a carelessly obtuse one. But if the Edinburgh Evening News want to feel they have a special way of looking at the world, that’s up to them. Perhaps the amplifier knobs in their office go up to 11 as well. It’s all relative I suppose, and to their credit, they are actually doing something different, which is itself commendable to a point.
What I would however suggest is that the average Fringe-Goer and other publications simply ignore this move for what it is, a frittery piece of attention seeking. One that ought to be allowed to run itself into the bin as soon as possible so we can all get back to the business of reviewing shows, rather than grandstanding and waving around our star ratings like children. Of course the Star rating system is imperfect. This isn’t simply a matter for theatre, the same argument has arisen in my experience in both the Film and Videogame industries. Stars are, as I said above, a necessary evil.
But, far better than adding in a confusing base-7 rating system, perhaps we should all start by making sure that reviews actually say what we intend them to say, so that a reader is in clear understanding even before they look at a rating. At the end of the day, we are CRITICS, are we not, and if you find that your audience is confused by the amount of stars given in a review, then surely that’s the fault of the writing accompanying the piece.
The old addage of the workman and his tools springs to mind. Perhaps all that is needed is better writing.