Response to 4TR’s Career Karaoke or Idol Fame Part 1 blog published in June/July 2021, where we focused particularly on the Idol franchise, and compared the experiences of Idol contestants here and in the USA, was unprecedented. So we are now publishing Part 2 of this Special Feature, and further revealing the facts, fiction, and future of the televised reality talent quest industry, through the lens of similar shows – X-Factor, The Voice, and Australia’s Got Talent.
Idol has been the template for most of the exploitive talent quest competitions that have been spawned globally in the past two decades, and has become the most widely -known form of reality programming around the world. The Idol format has been replicated in over 100 countries from Indian Idol, Armenia’s Hay Superstar, to Lebanon’s Star Academy, the French Nouvelle Star, and Chinese Idol, it is the most ubiquitous franchise of its type in the world.
But before the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Idol would disappear completely from our screens in Australia, replaced by increasingly bizarre, manipulative, scripted karaoke reality shows, that attracted rapidly declining viewer numbers. By now the TV network/record company syndicates that had overseen the growth of reality music television, had blatantly jettisoned any pretense of actually nurturing the talent of their participants, and breathlessly congratulated themselves when one or two performers actually emerged from the emasculating elimination process, to have a hit record; before quickly disappearing from the firmament into which they had been temporarily propelled, once they had reached their one hit wonder use-by date, and the closing credits had rolled on the latest season of Idol, AGT, The Voice, or X-Factor.
The rate at which viewer numbers declined for all of these shows, both here and overseas, was breathtaking, Australian Idol attracted an average viewing audience of 3.34m per week in Season 1 in 2003 but by Season 7 after which it was cancelled, viewer support had dropped by 58% to 1.4m, Simon Fuller’s Idol franchise wasn’t cheap to license or produce, so less costly and more gimmicky options were sought. In the USA Idol was initially picked up by the Fox Network who grew the average weekly audience from 21.03m in 2003, peaking in 2007 at 30.58m, before crashing to Earth in 2021 at 6.24m viewers per week.
By 2015 Fox had bailed and the ABC network had picked it up for a greatly reduced bargain basement fee, but with a substantially lower advertising rate, which reflected its declining fortunes. Below L-R – Damian Leith, Natalie Gauci, Paulini.
The final years of Australian Idol did produce artists who enjoyed ephemeral chart success immediately after their Idol exposure, Paulini, Natalie Gauci, Damien Leith, Wes Carr, and Kate DeAraugo all flirted with success but none really hit the big-time.
In the States the Idol franchise has been flogged to death for twenty years since 2002, initially it was a big ratings winner and generated substantial advertising revenue for its producers, and proved to be a marketing winner for sponsor companies including Ford Motor Company, AT&T Comms, Coca-Cola, and Apple iTunes, who benefitted from the saturation product placement on the show, but as ratings plummeted, these companies moved on.
Over the journey the Idol franchise in the US has been cloned and re-invented in many ways to prolong its commercial longevity- Disney World (Fla.) featured a Disney Idol attraction in 2009-14, and there has been a stream of other spin-offs including – End-of-Season Compilation Albums, Idol National Tours, American Idol Juniors, American Idol Rewind, American Idol Extra, The Next Great American Band, Idol Camp, Idol Wrap, American Idol Christmas, Idol Play Station tie-ins etc. – the list is almost endless, just don’t ask how much of this revenue actually found its way back to the contestants, or even the increasingly- invisible season winners.
The last five US Idol seasons failed to produce a hit record for the winners, Trent Harmon, Maddie Pop, Laine Hardy, Just Sam, and Chayce Beckham languished after fulfilling their contractual obligations on the show. Clearly Idol had become a tired, third-rate schedule-filler for TV networks, and the record-buying public was no longer impressed when somebody won a tricked-up national karaoke competition. Below L-R – Trent Harmon, Maddie Pop, Laine Hardy.
The Idol franchise concept was however still seen by many network strategists and record labels as the kind of low-cost scripted reality television that had instant appeal and could provide a brief but profitable sugar-hit for their bottom lines. As long as the scripting and presentation of the show delivered drama, human interest, tension and occasionally memorable performances, the chemistry could easily be spiced up by contriving feuds between judges, or including child performers, vision-impaired singers, people on the spectrum, and more contestants with heart-wrenching back stories of dysfunctional families, drug-addicted parents, and even criminality. It was exploitation of the worst kind, reducing the worthy concept of discovering and nurturing new talent to a cheap game show format, a kind of fast-food karaoke freak show, that exposed potentially vulnerable people to extraordinary levels of stress, embarrassment, and anxiety. Below L-R Simon Fuller, Simon Cowell
Simon Cowell quickly realized the commercial potential of the reality song contest format, he had carved out a reputation as the “nasty British” judge on American Idol, but his mate Simon Fuller owned that franchise and he was the one who cleaned up financially. Next time around Cowell would own two new franchises, X-Factor and Britain’s/America’s/Australia’s Got Talent, and he would become a ubiquitous presence on these shows, a judge dispensing his unique combination of sarcasm, tough love, arrogance, and world-weary insight, to bewildered wannabes who hung on his every word, simply because he was a judge, who owned the franchise.
X-Factor was launched in Australia in 2005 and Season 1 attracted an average weekly viewing audience of 1.5m, the show’s format was apparently still evolving, as the first winner (s) were referred to as Random Groups, hardly an inspiring start for those lumped together under such an ignominious title. The ratings for Season 1 were so abysmal that it was shelved for five years, but when Idol was cancelled after the 2009 season, Network Seven saw an opportunity and revived it in 2010, with a new judging panel and modified format. By Season 4 Altiyan Childs and Reece Mastin were past winners with minimal chart success to show, but X-Factor would peak here when several talented women won Seasons 4 and 5. Samantha Jade and Dami Im both impressed, and enjoyed some prolonged career success, particularly the latter who represented Australia at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest and came second. Below L-R Samantha Jade, Dami Im, Marlisa Punzalan.
But by the time X-Factor was aired for the last time in 2016, and other winners Marlisa Punzalan, Cyrus Vilanueva, and Isiah Firebrace had slowly slipped into obscurity, the average weekly viewer numbers had declined by 50% to .754 m, and the show was dropped by Channel 7. Below L-R – Reece Mastin, Isiah Firebrace, Altiyan Childs.
Internationally X-Factor ran for 15 seasons in the UK between 2004-2018, and there were several notable success stories. One Direction who came third in Season 7 in 2011, went on to dominate charts globally, similarly the girl group quartet Little Mix who won Season 8 went on to amass global sales of 60m records, while other solo winners James Arthur (Series 9), Sam Bailey (Season 10) and Ben Haenow (Season 11) have all had one UK #1 hit record. The show’s ratings peaked in Series 7 at 14m but by 2015 had collapsed by 55% to 6.0m and the show was rested for two years, in the USA X-Factor bombed from the get-go, launched in 2011 it limped through three seasons before being cancelled.
The Voice had originally started life as The Voice of Holland before it became a more generically-branded global franchise, in this country it has run for 10 seasons, from 2012-21, and has the unenviable reputation of being the most spectacularly unsuccessful vehicle for any of its winners to establish successful post-show careers, throughout the world. Below L-R – Karise Eden, Harrison Craig, Ellie Drennan.
The first winner Karise Eden enjoyed short-lived chart success with You Won’t Let Me in 2012, and Season 2 winner Harrison Craig took three songs into the top ten in 2013, including two covers, and then vanished from the charts. Subsequent winners Anja Nissen, Ellie Drennan, Alfie Arcuri, Judah Kelly, Sam Perry, Diana Rouvas, and Chris Sebastian, would all fall into the “where are they now” category. The average weekly viewer ratings for The Voice fell by 60% from 2.375m in 2012 to .928m in 2020. Despite an apparent viewer disenchantment with this format, Channel 7 revived it in 2021 off the back of saturation promotion during their coverage of the Olympic Games, as well as via puff pieces on such Seven network shows as Sunrise and the Morning Show. Judges L-R – Rita Ora, Keith Urban, Jessica Mauboy, Guy Sebastian.
The Voice 2021 was a significantly truncated version of previous incarnations of the show and only ran for 13 weeks, clearly Channel 7 were wary of it outstaying its welcome, as The Voice 2020 ran for 21 episodes, which was also down from the peak of 24 episodes in 2013. The judging panel was also drastically changed, gone were Delta Goodrem, Boy George, and Kelly Rowland, only Guy Sebastian was retained, and he was joined by Rita Ora, Jessica Mauboy, and Keith Urban, and there was less bitching and sniping amongst the judges, which seemed to resonate with viewers, who had become tired of the diva-like behaviour of past judging panels. The show launched with viewer numbers of 1.329m and then dropped in subsequent weeks to 1.162m. and continued to fall, a familiar trend for a show that had lost traction with viewers, and never looked like recapturing its former glory. Below Bella Taylor Smith.
The final was decided in early September 2021, but even now most people would struggle to remember that Hillsong Church member Bella Taylor Smith was the winner, and it seems even fewer bought her single Higher, which stalled at #31 on the charts, nor her EP, The Complete Collection, which simply failed to chart. In a positive note for the show, it did win its timeslot in 10 of the 14 episodes in which it screened, delivering a solid result for Channel 7 against its main competitor, Channel 9’s The Block, another scripted reality show with a tired and predictable format, which was overdue for cancellation or at least a lengthy hiatus. Channel 7 has recently announced plans to expand its future reality karaoke prime-time line-up with the launch of The Voice: Generations, in what looks like a tawdry generation-gap exploitation of wannabees across numerous demographic markets simultaneously, a musical version of Family Feud no less, so expect to hear the same overhyped, disingenuous comments from the judges as “This is the best voice I have ever heard on The Voice” (The Voice Australia has never produced a chart-topping singer in ten years), and “This is why I agreed to keep doing this gig” (when was the last time Rita Ora or Jessica Mauboy had a hit?). It already looks cheap but not very cheerful, while they are also looking at reviving the Idol and AGT franchises in the future as well, clearly too much cheap, scripted reality television is never enough for Network Seven!
The Voice in the UK and USA produced few breakthrough performers; of 10 seasons in the UK, 2012-21, several winners have secured minor hits there – Max Milner (Afterglow), Gecko (Wish You Well), Becky Hill (Remember), Leah McFall (I Will Survive), and Steve McCrorie (Lost Stars). In the USA there have been no less than 20 seasons crammed into the period 2011-2020 at the rate of two seasons per year, with the predictable tapering off in quality and viewer support, with few winners enjoying much chart success. Cassadee Pope, Danielle Badbury, Sawyer Fredericks, and Jordan Smith had minor hits, but USA The Voice has become a third-rate attraction that has been mercilessly over-exposed in that market.
You’ve Got Talent
Simon Cowell’s second reality show venture was the You’ve Got Talent franchise, which seemed to hark back to the variety show format of yesteryear, imagine the lineup that would have been assembled for an Ed Sullivan Show or a Royal Variety Performance, or an episode of Opportunity Knocks, and this would closely align with a season of YGT- singers (pop, rock, opera, blues, show tunes), poets, magicians, animal acts, ventriloquists, comedians, musicians, dancers, mime artists – a veritable lucky dip of populist entertainment, a circus big top full of New Faces worthy of Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday. Below L-R – Bonnie Anderson, Uncle Jed, Smokin’ Joe Robinson.
YGT aimed for the broadest possible audience appeal, and in so doing removed the obligatory test of having a hit record and a sustained career in popular music, as the standards by which reality show winners had previously been judged. AGT launched in Australia in 2007 and would run for nine seasons out to 2019, with a two-year hiatus in 2014-15 after the ratings tanked. You could be forgiven for not recalling most of the winners – Bonnie Anderson, Smokin’ Joe Robinson, Mark Vincent, Jack Vidgen, Andrew De Silva, Uncle Jed, Fletcher Pilon, and Kristy Sellars, are names that do not readily spring to mind, which makes Justice Crew, the Season 4 winners, the standout amongst the AGT alumni, with solid chart hits in the period 2012-14 – Boom, Boom, Best Night, Everybody, and Que Sera. But by 2015 their records were tanking, Sony Music dropped them, and by 2019 they had disbanded. Viewer support for AGT followed the same downward trajectory of other franchised talent shows, commencing with average weekly viewer support of 1.306m in 2007 and declining by 40% to .783m in 2019. Below – Justice Crew
Britain’s Got Talent has run for 14 seasons between 2007-2020, and produced two performers of note, Welsh tenor and opera singer Paul Potts who won the First Season final and has subsequently released seven studio albums, and Scotswoman Susan Boyle, who finished second in the 2009 season and combined an impressive voice with an affecting, guileless naivety, apparently attributable to her Aspergers Syndrome condition, who has amassed record sales of 19.0 m. since leaving the show. Below L-R – Paul Potts, Susan Boyle, Terry Fator.
America’s Got Talent has aired for 15 seasons between 2006-2020 but with the exception of season 7 winner, singer/impressionist/ventriloquist Terry Fator, who has done gigs in Las Vegas, no one else has hit the big time, nevertheless the $1.0m first prize money for winning a season there, seems to be reward enough for those who compete and win, but don’t translate that into a sustainable career.
Collapsing ratings and increasingly the failure of talent quest shows to mint new stars, confirmed the fact that viewers had lost interest in the rags-to-riches fairytale the networks were selling; that celebration of ordinariness that would have us believe that Idol and its clones, were not just scripted reality shows, but some sort of heroic odyssey, on which people embarked, in an earnest quest for success – but they weren’t. The discovery and nurturing of talent can never be as simple as winning a TV talent show, because the focus of such shows is on ratings, so that a higher value will always be placed on the marketability of talent, at the expense of the performer’s well-being, originality, or professional development. There will be occasional acts that prove to be the exception to the rule, who endure through grueling and brutal elimination rounds, or being artificially welded together with other singers to form groups, and they succeed, but the percentage of those contestants who enter a quest at the early “cattle call” stage and emerge successfully, is infinitesimal. Below L-R – Justin Bieber, Troy Sivan, Shawn Mendes
In 2022 we know that any performer with a modicum of talent is already a microcelebrity, potentially accumulating millions of plays on YouTube or Tik Tok, the music-based social media sites, which are essentially a never-ending edition of Australia’s Got Talent. Aspiring artists can self-start their career, rather than wait for record label gatekeepers to give them the green light. Singers have been using social media to ignite their careers from home for some time, notable vlog pioneers include Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Troy Sivan, 5 Seconds of Summer, and more recently Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and Lewis Capaldi, who have all by-passed TV talent shows to organically create a global fanbase. Below L-R – Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, 5 Seconds of Summer
Artists too are increasingly aware of the brutal reality that talent show success and a record label contract does not necessarily translate into a living wage in the streaming era, where performers receive a fraction of one cent per stream, and 2019 US data has confirmed that 90% of streams go to 1% of the artists. Performers deprived of a fair share of income from their creative efforts have decided to step outside the standard major label arrangements to embrace more viable alternatives.
A growing digital “creator economy” took off around 2011 with YouTube and has evolved as creators from many different fields – writers, gamers, academics, chefs, athletes, artists, songwriters, and anyone with a point of view, a video, or a song to share, have flocked to such sites as Twitch, OnlyFans, Patreon, and Substack, in the hope of selling their skills directly to their fans; in 2021 the Influencer Marketing Factory estimated that some 50 million people globally participate in the creator economy which was valued at USD$100 billion. Below Daniel Allen
Artists have also embraced the sale of digital copies of their songs as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and use the proceeds to fund upcoming releases and support their careers. NFT platforms like Catalog, On Catalog 133, and Songcamp, enable artists to collaborate on-line, push technological boundaries, and sustain their professional existence without surrendering the actual rights to their music. LA-based performer Daniel Allen is a leader in the NFT movement, whose ascendent message app Allen’s Discord has taken off, and he now enjoys a creative freedom and autonomy not possible within the confines of a major record label contract or within the streaming powerhouses.
In response to mounting criticism of talent contests there has been a flurry of so-called “credible” talent shows that are supposedly focused on more authentic ways to identify and nurture talent. In 2019 the Eurythmics Dave Stewart launched Songland on the NBC in the USA, a talent-show which focused on nurturing new songwriters to create a hit record by working with producers and recording artists. Over two seasons in 2019-20 the creative process produced many credible songs, but there was a muted viewer response to a show that starred composers and lyricists and not the actual performers, average weekly ratings tumbled from 6.9m on debut to 3.43m for the last episode of season 2.
The Rap Game US and UK focused on discovering the next MC (emcee) superstar by placing would-be rappers in a recording studio for 6 weeks under the guidance of such performers as Queen Latifah and Jermaine Dupri (USA) and rappers Krep and Konan and 1Xtra’s DJ Target (UK). In the US the show aired on the cable channel Lifetime and on BBC 3 in the UK, in this format individual success was not supposed to be defined by record sales or viewer numbers, but by garnering “the respect of the rap community”, but it was unclear how this was to be measured. After five seasons in the US (2016-2020) and two seasons in the UK (2019-2020), both shows remain minor attractions, with some criticism of the quality of the artists participating in the UK version of the show, but this concept does support the creative process in a way that Idol and its clones never did.
Other alternative talent quest options have included the hip hop-focused Rhythm + Flow which screened on Netflix for one season, and was not subject to free-to-air censorship restrictions, and 2017’s The Pop Game, Timbaland’s new show which focused on mentoring five aspiring singers through a season, with a recording contract the ultimate prize, but all of these shows failed to resonate with viewers and were cancelled.
Little Mix had successfully emerged as the winners of Season 8 of X-Factor (UK), and they launched their new talent show Search in 2020, but it quickly became clear that the premise for the show was simply to self-promote Little Mix. The group members were the judges on the show, and the first prize was a support spot on a Little Mix tour, it was axed after the nine episodes of Series 1 had meandered to a finish, after many Covid-related delays, much re-scheduling, and a poor viewer response.
Similarly, the oddly- conceived and poorly- executed All Together Now (UK) in 2018, hosted by Geri Halliwell and Rob Beckett on the BBC, featured a ridiculously bloated 100 judge panel, and turned out to be simply an embarrassing re-heat of tepid Idol reality show tropes and cliches, and was axed after two seasons. Below – Rob Beckett and Geri Halliwell
Over the past twenty years viewers have become attuned to how these shows are presented, the Idol format has become an industry standard; and to vary the formula and remove the scripted game show-style hype, the phoniness of instant celebrity, and the cruel voyeurism of watching ordinary people fail, will take some time for many viewers to adjust to.
But tellingly the teenage demographic has already deserted these shows, and they may provide leadership in this regard, they are techno-savvy and know the power of social media; they identify with the reach of performers, who are natural digital natives, talented and confident communicators in an on-line world, rising stars that the fans can get very close to in a way that viewers of the Idol franchise, now in over 100 countries throughout the world, never could. Below L-R – Matt Corby, Kate DeAraugo, Shannon Noll.
Over the coming weeks 4TR will feature the songs of recent talent show alumni including – Samantha Jade, Dami Im, Kate DeAraugo, Matt Corby, Natalie Gauci, Justice Crew, as well as several hits by Guy Sebastian and Shannon Noll, early graduates of the Idol School of Talent Identification, it’s sad to note that many of the aforementioned artists no longer have viable careers in the music industry, with Guy Sebastian Dami Im, and possibly Matt Corby the exceptions.