The strange life of the TV accountant

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on why accountants still need to know how to count

There they are! You see them on the corner of the stage, giving the cameras a wave before the final results are announced. Presenting: The TV accountants.

Whether it’s the Oscars or a beauty competition, a weird tradition has grown up to have qualified accountants tallying up the votes – as if people need years of specialist training to count a few pieces of paper.

There may be 900 million eligible voters in India’s general election, but TV shows are not in the same league. Beauty contests can have as few as five judges.

Oscars are chosen by just 7,000 people. So why do you need PwC, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world?

Because it’s not really about counting votes. It’s about the organizers showing that the outcome can be trusted because, look, there are accountants doing the counting, and everyone knows accountants are not error-prone humans.

And, of course, it’s good publicity for the accounting firm – as long as they get it right, as a pair of PwC accountants famously failed to do at the Oscars in 2017 (La La Land was incorrectly named the night’s best-picture winner after presenters were given the wrong envelope to open. The correct winner was actually Moonlight).

To fix that, PwC these days sends a group of no less than 21 staff members to Hollywood to oversee the counting of those 7,000 votes. Members of the team are required to memorize the entire list of winners between the final count and the announcements. This is so that if they hear the wrong name being read out, they can immediately leap on stage, grab the mic and correct it.

So there you have it: you sign up to do a bit of gentle auditing, and you literally end up fighting Vin Diesel on stage in front of 23 million viewers.

The second biggest awards ceremony for global coverage is also from the United States: the American music industry’s Grammy Awards. The number of votes is about double that of the Oscars, but the accountants in charge, which have been Deloitte for some time, are hardly stretched, since the votes are sent in five weeks before the awards night.

But the process is murkier. The public votes go to a secret committee. Members each fill out a ballot, which they don’t show each other, but hand to the accountant.

Even committee members don’t know who’s getting the votes: only the accountant does. This, again, shows that accountants are associated with trust. If I were the accountant, I would be so tempted to write in the name of my nephew who has a few nice-ish self-recorded tracks on YouTube. He’s more in need of a career boost than Taylor Swift.

Why don’t they get accountants to take over really big tallying operations like public elections? Look how long the U.S. election count took. Accountants could easily set up computers to do the whole thing.

The issue, again, is trust. People who click on a screen – and are later told a result – have a low level of trust. The slow, traditional system (people write on a piece of paper and then watch people on TV counting the sheets of paper) feels less suspicious. Unless your candidate loses.

A third way is one pushed recently by accountants and chief financial officers: adapt the blockchain system that is all the rage now.

Blockchain is a shared electronic network jointly controlled by all members, and thus, cheat-proof. I can’t see any downsides to the idea – except for the fact that someone is going to have to teach the average voter how blockchain works. This may be beyond normal human capability.

So at the moment, we are stuck with traditional vote-counting like in the recent U.S. election. But we can be grateful for small mercies. Like the fact that the U.S. election hustings may have a lot of TV events at which candidates are judged, but there’s no swimsuit section. Thank God.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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