TRANSITORY IDOLS: the ever-evolving world of the TV talent quest

TalentQuestBack in 2003 it all seemed so exciting. Like everything in the then-fledgling competition / reality / fly on the wall genre, it was such a vibrant new way to watch TV. You could follow an entire ‘journey’ to potential super-stardom, from the moment a complete unknown who’d braved the world’s longest queue walked into their first (and so often also their last) audition, then the whole emotional ordeal of getting into the top 100 and then, for the really lucky ones, the great struggle to emerge triumphant from ‘The Final 12’. All you had to do was tune in once or twice a week and send the odd SMS vote to help your favourites reach the finish line.

The contrived suspense surrounding the announcement of each week’s results was truly edge-of-your-seat thrilling; the not infrequent tear-fests and dummy-spits were as hilarious as they were tedious and predictable; the endless parade of sob stories – typically about eating disorders – only added to the light-entertainment value; and trying to decide which of the soundalike 1-900 numbers to send your premium-priced SMS votes to each week was often an exercise in futility, particularly for anyone in the habit of celebrating ‘Elimination Night’ with a healthy supply of liquid refreshment to hand. Best of all, you could actually play a real-time role in determining the outcome of the show, right there from the comfort of your own private sprawling space. It was all so convenient – and so terribly interactive!

Queue my sad addiction.

For at least half a decade, I didn’t consider my TV year complete without my annual fix of Australian Idol. Of course by the time Idol and later variations came along – all buying in to UK or American franchises – regardless of how much the format had been tweaked, they were always more evolutionary than revolutionary. Popstars kicked off the current crop back in early 2000, but TV talent quests had already been an Aussie ratings bonanza for decades. The always cheesy Young Talent Time had been every Australian kid’s guilty pleasure for seventeen years – though its 2012 revival clearly didn’t strike the same chord with today’s tweens. Grown-ups had the equally cheesy New Faces for twenty-two years, then two more short-lived revivals until it was killed off for good in the early 90s. And there was a handful of slightly ‘hipper’ variations on the New Faces model, including Star Search – initially only two seasons, followed by a blink-and-you’ll-miss it revival four years later – and even the infamous Red Faces segment of the Nine Network’s Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday! which, for many viewers, became one of the main reasons to tune in to Hey! Hey! for two hours each week and was one of the stronger drawcards of Hey Hey’s own ill-fated 2010 revival.

In case you hadn’t picked it yet, there’s a theme developing here: revival. Every new show that comes along is just another in a long line, part of the ever-evolving TV talent quest world. Even before the new ones materialised, all the old ones had died a natural death and been revived more times than anyone could keep count of. But although it was a very different time, the old shows really only differed from the current ones in four (albeit fairly significant) ways:

  • In the old days the judges were just judges. Most weren’t celebrities per se and their involvement with contestants rarely strayed beyond feedback specific to a performance, the issuing of points and determination of the winner. Other than the possibility of a handshake or gentle tussling of the hair during the closing credits, contestants and judges rarely had any other interaction.
  • Most of the current shows – with the possible exception of Australia’s Got Talent – pull no punches about being predominantly, if not entirely, music-based. While some of the old shows had a certain bias towards musical acts, contestants generally weren’t restricted to musical performance and a non-musical act often had as much or more chance of actually winning as a musical one did.
  • Prior to Popstars the technology to support the immediate, or even slightly delayed, receipt and collation of home audience voting hadn’t existed. With the advent of the SMS and online options, voting lines could be opened at the start of a show and closed off again before the end and it would still be possible to incorporate actual viewer’s votes into deciding winners, rather than relying solely on a handful of in-studio judges to have the final say.
  • Winning, in and of itself, was the greatest glory to come from winning one of the old shows. While some of them offered cash or physical prizes, it wasn’t a given. The 21st century varieties usually offer cash prizes too, but the biggest point of difference is the likelihood of a recording contract for the winner. As exciting as winning $500 cash or a JVC VCR was in its day, the sheer scope of winning a recording contract – not just for its monetary value, but also the scale of exposure it represents – is on a whole other level to the old shows’ most generous offerings.

Virgin idols…

While Australian Idol may not have been the first of the modern iteration of TV talent quests, big winners and potentially long-term fame didn’t really come into the equation until Idol started spitting out its annual duo of Runner-Up and Winner. It was fairly restrictive to begin with too, pandering as it did to record industry executives and a very specific target audience – an age restriction was imposed on participants and they weren’t allowed to sing original material or play their own instruments. Almost in spite of this, since 2003 the six top two place-getters of the first three seasons of Idol have collectively amassed eighteen Top 10 albums (including 4 #1s) and twenty-nine Top 10 singles (including 12 #1s), in the process receiving an astonishing 74 Gold and 65 Platinum accreditations, recognising their Australian sales – to say nothing of sales in the overseas territories that some of them also successfully broke into.

But as the seasons went on, the relative success of the participants began to wane, as did the ratings. To keep up with more recent competitors Idol also changed its rules to allow older participants, original material and instrumental performances. But it was too little, too late.

By the time Idol ended in 2009, the format had fallen out of favour with almost everyone who’d made it such a success to begin with. Tellingly, even I wasn’t especially bothered by its demise. I’d long since lost interest in the same-same machinations of reality TV. By then it seemed that everything that could’ve been turned into a contest or a race had been – singing, dancing, modelling, cooking, losing weight, building, renovating, designing clothes that no right-minded person would ever wear, backpacking around the world, surviving in faux-remote locations, being a ‘celebrity’ – every conceivable thing had become a made-for-TV competition, with all the moving parts strung together using only slight variations on the same colour-by-numbers format: auditions; crying; sob stories about eating disorders, bullying or terminal loved-ones; blubbering justifications of why winning would be the fulfilment of a lifelong dream; the whittling down of a large group into a much smaller one, before picking them off one-by-one; confinement of said smaller group to close quarters and isolating them from the outside world, whereby manufacturing the greatest potential for interpersonal tension and drama; more evictions and eliminations than you could poke a stick at; more tears; friendships and alliances turning to bitchy double-crossing and backstabbing; voting lines opening and closing more often than a problem gambler’s wallet; even more tears; more blubbering justifications of said fulfilment of said lifelong dreams; and all the way through, a whole bunch of tricky edits resulting in ever-more contrived suspense, until finally someone would be crowned top dog for that year.


Go the fro…

In all likelihood, this year’s champion of champions looks like being The Voice, an enormously stylised production that’s done more for the popularity of high-backed swivel chairs and giant red buttons than anything that’s gone before; where the antics of the celebrity element – in this case, four ‘vocal coaches’ – became more unnecessarily theatrical than ever; and where three of the four celebrity coaches and at least three of their (arguably less successful and less famous) celebrity assistants – the ‘mentors’ – just happened to have a single, album or tour in the offing at some point during the course of the show’s massively high-rating ten week run. What wonderfully coincidental timing.

Let me be completely upfront about this: I didn’t watch a single episode of The Voice. Nor have I ever intentionally listened to – or even knowingly heard – a single sound made by a single one of its contestants. But without having the luxury of being able to close my eyes and not see anything or go anywhere for months on end, it was impossible not to be aware of the Nine Network’s incessant advertising campaign – buses, billboards, newspapers, magazines, online, on taxis, at airports, The Voice was everywhere. Mercifully, what little I did see of the TV advertising was entirely from the safety of my treadmill at the gym, where Channel 9 isn’t afforded any volume whatsoever. But thanks to my love of all things music (except, it would seem, talent quests!), my regular review of the Top 50 music charts meant there was one thing I definitely couldn’t avoid – the constant stream of The Voice-related releases making their fleeting presence felt on the charts.


Queue the theatrics and crocodile tears…

The Voice’s assault on the charts was unprecedented; even with their cover versions of almost every song ever recorded, not even the Glee cast managed to trample the garden of Australian music sales as destructively as The Voice did. Between 16 April and 16 July, The Voice was either directly or indirectly responsible for fifty-eight singles and eight albums entering the Top 50, including tracks by the contestants themselves, releases by the show’s celebrity contingent and reinvigorated sales of artists’ original tracks following their performance by a contestant on The Voice – I draw your attention to Exhibit A: the re-entry of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights to the chart for the first time since 1978 a week after it was performed by Laura Bunting on The Voice. Coincidence? I think not!

In the week of the grand final alone, the Top 50 singles list saw a staggering seventeen entries – one of them by Keith Urban, another twelve by The Voice contestants, with six of them entering the chart within the Top 11. It was like nothing ARIA – or avid chart followers – had ever seen. Nor, for that matter, was the following week’s chart, where all bar three of The Voice contestants’ singles had been prematurely ejaculated from the list, including Karise Eden’s #1 debuting Stay With Me Baby which made a truly spectacular exit by slipping all the way back to #56, in the process smashing a fourteen year record for biggest drop from #1 by about 20 places – and that record was set back in the days of exclusively physical sales and was entirely due to a supply problem! I suspect no such issue plagued any of Ms Eden’s product as, one after another, each spectacular chart entry was immediately eclipsed by an even more spectacular exit.

So how is everyone not over this by now? In an age of short attention spans and our brains being constantly bombarded by more information than we’ve the capacity to process, hasn’t the continual worship of these transitory idols all gotten a bit tedious? Used to be that teens were the loudest – and generally the only – proponents of the latest pop music fads, most of whom would disappear almost as quickly as anyone’s ability to recall anything about them. Over the past ten years, these shows – and their equivalents in the other competition ‘sectors’ – have commanded enormous audiences. We’ve connected our dial-up internet to go online and vote, we’ve spent more money than any of us would care to admit on sending SMSs, we’ve Facebooked and Twittered our likes and dislikes for the world to see, we’ve spent time in studio audiences and on the steps of the Opera House watching it all unfold live before our very eyes, we’ve gushed about the depth and breadth of incredible talent before us, over and over, year after year… and yet, regardless of preferred genre, most of us can’t remember who won last year’s competition.

Go on, test yourself:

Who won Masterchef 2010? Who won The Block in 2005? Who won Big Brother in 2002? Who won The X Factor in 2010? Who won Australia’s Got Talent in 2008? Who won Australian Idol in 2004? Who won Dancing With The Stars in 2009? Who was Australia’s Next Top Model for 2007 – and did she, in fact, ever become Australia’s actual current ‘top model’?

Or is that not the point? Is that not really what it’s all about? As a society, have we become so used to the transitory that longevity no longer really matters? Or did it never matter at all? As a nation of sports lovers, is it more about the thrill of the chase, the love of the competition, than remembering who ultimately wins?

I can think of plenty of sports-loving friends and family who’d heartily challenge that theory.

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