I feel like I’m late to the party in writing this article.
Reality TV isn’t exactly a new concept. “The Real World” has been broadcast in America since 1992, however, over here in the UK it wasn’t until 2001 with the introduction of “PopStars” that I first started noticing it on our screens.
At first it was welcomed widely, praised as a new, exciting form of Saturday Night entertainment and took interactivity between viewer and show to a whole new level. Since then, however the concept has spawned Pop Idol, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent to name but a few (and this, excluding their International equivalents) and opinions are divided. While many still tune in religiously to see contestants put on the spot under the scrutiny of a panel of Judges, many see the format as a damaging influence on the industries in the eye of the storm (TV/Theatre/Music) and find they will do all they can (short of taking refuge in an underground bunker) to avoid it.
We’ve also seen reality TV branch into Theatre as we’ve seen Andrew Lloyd Webber put hopeful contestants through their paces to choose a Joseph, Maria and Dorothy (again, amongst others) for their respective West End shows and eventual National tours.
For the purpose of this post, I will be looking specifically at these shows. The ones that take the form of a talent competition, with the winner going on to (ideally) be the new breakout star of stage or airwave, depending on their particular skill. To do this, I probably won’t need to refer to shows such as Big Brother or Survivor etc. which is probably for the best as I’d have very little complimentary to say.
You might be able to tell from my opening, that my tone isn’t hugely positive. But why not? Surely, handing an opportunity to millions of people across the Globe that wouldn’t normally have a chance of having their moment in the spotlight in a fantastic thing. Surely, we need “fresh talent” and now we have an endless resource. Finally, it’s not just for those who’ve had “all the breaks” and anyone from anywhere can get up, have their moment and for a fleeting moment, dream of stardom and success and in the meantime, millions worldwide are entertained.
So, where’s the problem?
Well as I see it, there are many. From the public shaming and ridiculing of those not successful and the false hope and promise imposed on those that are, to the performance industries, which are already overflowing with unemployed and talented performers being trivialised to the point where the impression is given that almost anyone can do it. The shows draw in contestants on the promise of overnight fame, success and fortune and frequently we are told they pack in their jobs and livelihoods to travel the length of the country just so they can participate. The sad truth, however, is that overnight fame, prolonged success and fortune are all but myths in most creative industries for many of those dedicated to it and from my experience, it’s these people (myself included) who have the biggest issues with the Reality TV format.
From a production stand-point, Talent Show Reality TV makes all the sense in the world. It’s relatively cheap to produce. All of the contestants are essentially volunteers who are excited just to be there, no Actors are required and frequently neither are script writers. It’s a streamlined show with a simple and easily executed format which is easy to follow, easy to understand and by it’s very nature has all of the built-in excitement and tension that audiences crave. It’s a no-brainer that these shows work, maintain their popularity and continue to have people tune in in droves, pay to see it recorded live and then spend additional money to buy the subsequent tickets to the tour/show or albums. However, this in itself means that creative new writing (be it dramas or comedies or anything in between) isn’t getting the funding it once did.
It’s hard not to imagine the creative minds behind the shows sitting in ivory towers, eating unicorn steaks, sipping champagne and laughing maniacally. No? Just me then.
I think one of my biggest issues with the shows is what I perceive to be exploitation of people for the sake of entertainment. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that these people are too stupid to think for themselves, but are they fully aware of what they’re getting themselves into? Are they aware of the ridicule they’re opening themselves up to or, even if they have a real skill or talent, do they have the necessary training, stamina and technique to be able to do it on demand night after night? More on that later.
Many of the shows require the competitors to go through several rounds of pre-screening auditions before they ever hit the televised auditions. They are essentially auditioned to audition. This means that those “hilarious” auditions of people painfully out of tune or being seemingly unaware or how awful they are have already been told they’re great several times. They’ve had their hopes built, their inhibitions shed and their talent endorsed before they then confidently walk out in front of a live audience who hold nothing back in laughing, ridiculing and patronising this person. Now, to me that is nothing short of cruel.
Dave Grohl once spoke about “The Voice”, another internationally popular Reality TV show, and it’s right (or lack their of) to tell people whether they should or shouldn’t sing:
Who is to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowin in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera “Mmmmm . . . I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next . . .”
It’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .
The problem here is that (as I expressed in a previous post) Singing (and music as a whole) is one of the most expressive things a person can do. Whether you think you’re good or not, it’s a joyous release of some of the deepest and most visceral parts of you and it pains me every time to see a teenager, a pensioner or ANYONE go on those shows, make it to the televised rounds for the sole purpose of being used as comic relief as they’re portrayed as delusional, idiotic and talentless. What if that person goes home embarrassed, ashamed and chooses to give up something that they love as a result?
It’s potentially a similar path for the more successful candidates on the show. Whether they’re perceived to be moderately talented or the next Freddie Mercury (or whoever you cool cats listen to these days) the hopefuls are built up only to be knocked down. Seriously, without Googling, tell me who won The Voice in your respective country 3 years ago? Are they still making music? Are they living the dream that was falsely promised to them? Or are they now pretty much as anonymous as they were when they entered the competition and instead performing in regional pantomimes? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, by the way, the point is more that it is far from the lofty heights promised to them and far from the scenario that was painted for them while bearing their soul on the show in question.
So, back to the point I touched on earlier. One of the aspects of the show that irks me the most is contestants being pushed to their limits physically as well as emotionally. To be more specific, let’s take The Voice as an example. Once successful auditionees have had their presence recognised by the judges and they’ve decided to no longer have their backs turned to them, they progress through to the next round.
The next round is what is called “The Battle” round. Now, anyone reading this who has ever had any formal voice training will hopefully cringe at the very concept just like I do whenever I see or hear it. This round pits two contestants off against each other in a Singing battle and by it’s very nature, encourages contestants to push and force their voices to be louder, stronger and more impressive than their counterpart.
I have more issues with this than I think I can detail here so let’s skip past my problem with singing and expressionate art being about far more than “who is the loudest” and my ire with singers forcibly inserting vocal tricks and trills into songs and phrases where they aren’t musically or artistically justified just because they can and let’s move on to the far more serious issue of vocal technique and stamina.
Now, I’m not here to toot my own horn or flatter my own ego but as a classically trained, Grade 8 singer and a graduate of a top drama school where I received comprehensive vocal coaching from an industry professional, I feel like I’m well within my rights to have my say on the matter.
It absolutely pains me to watch the Battle Rounds (as just one example from just one show) and see a seemingly endless stream of Singers misuse their voice, force it and strain it and ultimately do it untold damage by trying to emulate their idols, only to be encouraged by the “expert panel” and rewarded for doing so. If the contestant is successful they go on to further rounds where the pressure is on to better themselves again and again which often translates as “louder with more tricks” which often the contestant simply does not have the technique to do safely. Here’s a clue – if you’re watching a singer go red in the face and their veins are popping out of their neck, it’s probably not safe.
Even more painful is if they win. Then comes the subsequent tour of God knows how many consecutive dates (a stretch which even the best voices need the best of care to maintain quality and safety), an album recording and a series of increasingly desperate television appearances as the “star” realises that, now the show is over, so is the glory.
If the panel is truly made up of experts, then I see it as their responsibility to tell the contestants that they are using their voice in such a manner that will damage it in the long term and that often “less is more”. Instead, they are pushed and pushed to breaking point and I dread to think of how some contestants would fare in the long run.
Many of the professional, successful performers not only have years of training with a foundation in vital technique, but some even have continued support while on set or in the studio in the form of a company vocal coaches and even physiotherapists. That’s why the very best in these professions make it look easy – because they’re trained to and they’ve dedicated years of their lives to hone their skills and craft to an exceptional standard.
However, I’m in agreement with Sting in this particular instance. Here’s what he had to say regarding the Judges of American Idol:
(They have) no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion, advising contestants what to wear and how to look”
Well said, Sir.
My final frustration with the ever-popular Talent Shows is it’s miseducation of audience members as to what it truly takes to be a successful Singer, Actor, Dancer or whatever it may be.
As an Actor and a Singer, I can’t even begin to count the amount of times that people have suggested to me “Why don’t you just go on The X-Factor? Now, they mean well but it’s clear that their perception of it is that it’s a fast-track to fame and that the competition is actually based on talent. Similarly, with the shows seeking to find a star for a West-End Musical, the audience is taught that you just have to be a good singer and impress a select group of people to progress in this career that they also understand is notoriously difficult.
Ultimately, the shows are dumbing down the most popular forms of entertainment, miseducating the masses on what it takes to succeed in the creative arts, further concealing the hypocricy and difficulties faces by professional performers in an already preposteriously difficult and exploitative industry and perhaps most importantly, giving false hope to thousands of people, many of whom are brought crashing back down to Earth with ridicule, mockery and public shaming.
So – feeding the dream or perpetuating a lie? More like dumbing down an industry to create an easily replicated format that takes advantage of people’s hopes and dreams, exploits those with talent (while insulting the ones it doesn’t) and insults our intelligence at the expense of exciting new writing, trained professionals and at times, people’s dreams and desire to enjoy their passion.
But hey, Simon Cowell just bought a lovely new car, so….