"There are now so many stars floating around that you can hardly see the posters that they are stuck to..." Guy Masterton, writing in The Scotsman, August 2012.
Star ratings - and whether or not we should use them - are a neverending source of debate. There are few issues around the craft of reviewing which are more controversial, more frequently-discussed, or more liable to stir up latent passions. There's even a Facebook group dedicated to abolishing star ratings at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a relatively serious call for a ban on publications that continue to use them.
At FringeGuru we heard the debate, we listened in, and we had a very long internal conversation about whether we should drop star ratings. We decided to keep them. Here’s why.
This is an adaptation of a blog post first published in August 2013.
A few obvious reasons
Our readers want them. Yes, they do. Think about your own behaviour for a moment – what questions do you ask when you’re chatting to a friend about the Fringe? “Seen anything you recommend?” is always high on the list, and the average person simply isn't going to read through hundreds of reviews to get the answer to that question.
They’re not as reductive as people think. We honestly don’t believe that anyone has ever considered seeing a show, spotted a review of that show with a disappointing number of stars at the top, and thought “well, I won’t bother even to read about it then”. Again, consider your own behaviour. If you discovered that we didn’t like a show you’d had your eye on, wouldn’t you want to find out why?
It’s better the devil you know. Star ratings are a flawed system, but at least the flaws are understood. If we build our own edifice to replace them, we’re guaranteed to build in an all-new set of flaws. Audiences are smarter than they're sometimes given credit for – they do fundamentally understand both the purpose of the star system and its obvious limitations.
The less obvious reasons
They keep us honest. As a reviewer, if you weren’t particularly excited by a show, it’s the most tempting thing in the world to write a pusillanimous review which doesn’t really say anything at all. Having a star rating forces us to set out what we actually thought, right at the top, and then use the text of the review to justify it.
They help catch mistakes. The most common problem we pick up at the editing stage is that the text of the review doesn’t seem to match the star rating. Most of the time, the star rating’s right and the text is wrong – often by giving too much prominence to a minor detail. Without the star rating, there'd have been no warning and the review would have gone out as it stood. (Yes, we did discuss having “secret stars” which we didn’t publish, but in the end we decided that was just getting silly.)
They’re the one thing promoters can’t mis-quote. One should never underestimate the endless creativity promoters can show in extracting three-word quotes from reviews. We're not complaining about that at all – it’s part of the fun of the Fringe – but it doesn’t help the public when snippets are quoted wildly out of context. The one thing you absolutely cannot quote out of context is a star rating.
And a few non-reasons
It’s not to get our name splashed on posters. Like everyone else, we think star ratings on posters are a busted flush. We’d actually get more publicity (of the kind which matters to us) if we very visibly dropped star ratings, but we’re not going to do that because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
It’s not to make sure we get review tickets. Members of the public sometimes suspect that “more stars” equals “more tickets”, but the honest truth is that we’d get review tickets almost whatever we did. There are plenty of examples where a company's received a disappointing review and been eager to have us back for another shot.
It’s not because we’re “aping the nationals”. A very well-known reviewer once said this, but why would we ape the nationals? We want to do something distinctive and different, not be a pale imitation of someone else.
We use star ratings because we think they're valuable - to our readers, to the performers, and to ourselves. We appreciate that many people feel differently, and we respect the opinions of those who disagree. But this is a principled decision for us as well, and on Fringe Guru, star ratings are here to stay.