Are TV Talent Shows Good or Bad?
In recent years, TV talent shows have burst onto our screens with a vengeance. With most showing ordinary members of the public competing for a large monetary prize, they are only increasing in popularity. Simon Cowell's hugely popular UK X Factor show is set to launch in the US this summer, and with shows like Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent gracing our screens on an annual basis, TV talent shows have certainly played their part in changing the face of popular television. But is this step to use 'talented' members of the public to produce hugely profitable programmes such as X Factor a good thing or a bad thing? Here, I will attempt to discuss the pros and cons of TV talent shows.
Susan Boyle singing 'I Dreamed a Dream' - she achieved phemonenal global success following her first audition on Britain's Got Talent
The Limelight, Too Soon?
There is no doubt about it, talent shows like X Factor offer successful competitors an open door into the music industry, and a chance to become recognised. Many opposers of TV talent shows (with the legendary Elton John reportedly being one of them) will argue that a show like X Factor is the wrong way to kickstart a career in music. Traditionally, artists started at the bottom and worked their way up, working long and hard hours with little reward, driven by passion and huge determination. Of course, there would always be artists who would sail to the top by means of a lucky fluke, but for the most part, success was finally 'making it' after a long, dedicated struggle.
Not so with the winners of modern day TV talent shows. Winners are thrust into the public eye with very little warning or preparation. Even for the most balanced, grounded individual on earth, this would be an exciting but surreal life change. For some, the change might be too much. After all, it is almost as though the destination has been reached before the journey has even begun. Not only that, but a contender in a TV talent show experiences the entire journey in the public eye, unlike other artists who are already somewhat successful before they have to deal with excessive media attention.
Susan Boyle, runner up in Britain's Got Talent 2009, stunned Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden, along with the audience and the rest of Britain with her first audition. Wrongly, the judges clearly had her stereotyped as a no-goer - her awkward stage persona and style (or lack of) already had them convinced this would be rejection across the board. But, as she opened her mouth to sing the beginning bars of I Dreamed a Dream from the famous musical Les Miserables, the room fell silent as Boyle's voice entranced a nation. Susan Boyle's first act is one of the most viewed auditions ever on You Tube - she acquired instant fame on a phenomenal scale and has achieved great success since. Add to that the fact that she didn't even win - she lost out to street dance act Diversity in a surprise final - and it's clear that the Britain's Got Talent television platform was the stepping stone that the (then) 47-year-old needed to achieve her dreams. Without it, she would probably still be unknown.
But to say that Susan Boyle didn't struggle with the fame her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream brought her would be grossly misleading. In fact, even before Britain's Got Talent concluded, Boyle was finding her new-found fame and subsequent performances challenging. By her own admission, Susan Boyle is a quiet, home-loving woman who spent most of her time alone at home in her quiet Scottish village with her cat for company. Boyle is also known to have been diagnosed with learning difficulties after suffering minor brain damage during birth. Overnight global exposure was, no doubt, difficult to deal with. And understandably so.
That's not, of course, to say the attention wasn't welcome. Susan Boyle herself has described how her ambition in life was to become a successful singer, and 'to be the next Elaine Page'. Simon Cowell's 'Britain's Got Talent' was the answer to her dreams. Yes, there have been several reports of breakdowns and difficulties handling the fame since she was announced runner up in the final show - but Boyle's dream, from deep within her, was to be a singer, and now she is. Despite any problems, I believe she does not regret her performance on Britain's Got Talent. After all, it is difficult to acquire fame at any age, but for one nearing the age of 50, it is even harder.
Clever and Selective Editing
One factor worthy of discussion is the clever and selective editing used for reality television, including talent shows. Since contestants are not shown only during their performance, but feature in numerous clips throughout the programmes, television audiences gain a little more insight into the person behind the performance than they would had they been watching any other show. But do they really?
Upon reading interviews given by contestants in some TV talent shows, it has become apparent that not all contestants are happy with the way in which they are portrayed on prime-time national television. The reason given is often due to selective editing, which either (allegedly) highlights negative points in a disproportionate manner, or simply doesn't show the performer at his or her best. Perhaps a contestant may hit a low point and have a momentary blip from their usual behaviour. Or perhaps the video clips in which contestants air their views may be edited so that words are taken out of context, since viewers only really hear a select few seconds rather than the entire conversation. Editing can be cleverly used to influence the watching public's opinion of any one contestant, for good or for bad.
Also, because TV talent shows add more personal footage as opposed to just the performances, if a contestant has had difficulties in life - illness; disability; tragedy; other obstacles to overcome - there is the possibility that the judgement of the viewers can be swayed by personal circumstance rather than ability. Everyone loves a 'rags to riches' story, and it can make for some heart-warming television as someone who has suffered in life realises their dreams. That doesn't mean to say that winners are not worthy - but it does mean that less 'interesting' contestants may not get through to the end simply because they do not capture the hearts of the nation.
Ridicule and Criticism
TV talent shows can be ruthless in their evaluations of a contestant's performance. Judges have been seen in genuine hysterics over a poor act, often unable to hide their bemusement. Simon Cowell, the guru of TV talent shows, is well known for his refusal to hold back when he delivers his judges' comment. In an environment a little like a modern day freak show, it is this sort of behaviour which, in part, adds to the entertainment levels of a programme. Whether we care to admit to it or not, the truth is that many of us delight in watching the appallingly bad being given a reality check on national TV. But what does this do to the contestants themselves?
Society consists of many different personalities. Some people are good at taking the knock backs that life throws at them. Some are not so good. Sometimes, public ridicule or criticism - or even the suggestion that they simply don't have what it takes - can result in feelings of low self-esteem, failure or even depression. Many people who turn up for the auditions of a TV talent show really do believe that they have what it takes to make it big, however deluded their beliefs may be. The truth can hurt, and the fact that it is experienced in a very public setting can make the knock appear even harder. Even though they may only appear on our screens for a mere few minutes, these contestants may have spent years believing that success is around the corner, waiting in the wings. Cutting remarks or sniggering from the judges and audience, or even the truth spelled out in a no-nonsense manner can crush hopes and dreams in an instant. But it can take much longer than an instant for the real person behind the act to get over it.
Children who enter television talent shows are even more vulnerable. On UK X Factor, the minimum age limit is sixteen (it was once lowered to fourteen, but raised again the following year). On Britain's Got Talent, however, there is no minimum age limit at all, meaning that anyone of any age can enter. Connie Talbot entranced the nation at the age of just 6, with her remarkable rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. But even though she was an instant hit with the watching public, she didn't win the show. Probably this small fact no longer matters to her, since she has already released an album and has performed at many venues around the world. But, of course, Connie Talbot was one of the fortunate ones.
Children who build themselves up in their own minds often fall and have to deal with feelings of rejection and disappointment. Children are usually not as thick-skinned as adults, and thus the rejection may be harder to take. Several children have been seen in tears at auditions, in particular Hollie Steel who auditoned for the third series of Britain's Got Talent, aged 10. She forgot her lines during the audition and broke down in tears, pleading for another attempt.
Children often perceive small things as big and big things as even bigger. The question is, just how young is too young for a TV talent show audition? One might point out that children, just like the rest of us, have to deal with knock backs in life - some might say most children are far too mollycoddled these days. Another side to the debate might be that if a child really, really wants to enter, then perhaps it is wrong not to allow it. Children, however, should be well prepared for rejection - it can be a tough and callous procedure, and the truth is that thousands upon thousands of contestants audition for these shows, making the chance of success fairly remote for most.
Connie Talbot on Britain's Got Talent - on which there is no minimum age limit for contestants
Leona Lewis - One of the Most Successful Winners Ever on UK X Factor
Continued Success - Or Back to Oblivion?
And then, of course, winners of reality TV talent shows may be thrust into a false sense of achievement. Admittedly, a few do go on to achieve national, or even global success. Leona Lewis, winner of UK X Factor 2006 is one such example. There are others who have done well - Alexandra Burke, JLS (who came second) - but there are many that hit the heady heights, before falling back down to earth with a bang, even losing their recording contracts after as little as a year. 2007 winner Leon Jackson was forgotten almost before he had even begun. Television and the media can be both kind and cruel in equal measures. Sometimes winning just isn't enough - that magical ingredient that sows a true star is missing. Someone still has to win, though, and whilst the initial benefits of triumph are the same for all winners (huge cash prizes, contracts and media exposure), some remain successful whilst others sink quickly back into oblivion - and for some artists, sinking back into oblivion may be even worse than never having that glimpse of fame at all. Not all winners remain winners for long - Leona Lewis is perhaps one of the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Lack of Autonomy
One of the major aspects faced by the winners of TV talent shows is the lack of autonomy in developing the beginnings of a career. Although winners may typically receive large monetary rewards plus an exclusive recording contract (for example), the reins are often tightened and the artist is not free to develop at his or her own free will. For a singer or musician, they might face heavy pressure over what type of records are released. They could even feel forced into adopting a certain style of dress. The artist is heavily controlled and the individual's creativity stifled - this is the end result of the manufactured performer. And, whilst manufactured acts are not only reserved for television talent shows, life for the winners of such shows is often very restricted and the artist is curtailed from following his or her own path.
Sparring Between Judges and Entertainment Value
A TV talent show is, of course, about more than the abilities of the contestants. Great attention goes into picking judges who will connect with the public, and sparring between judges can often become a focal point of a programme. Whilst the main point of a show is deemed to be finding a new talent who can go on to lead a successful career, it is still a business opportunity that strives to bring in viewers and make money. Lighthearted bantering adds a bit of fun to a show, but judges aside, can this mean that it is not always the most talented contestants at the auditions who are awarded a place in the live finals, but sometimes those who stir up public opinion and get people talking? Let's face it, there are always acts viewers love to hate - usually because of their less-than-show-stopping efforts. Many more may be mediocre, and we only wonder why some of the acts possessing double the talent didn't get through. But then, we have to remember, a TV talent show is firstly about entertainment - and there, perhaps, lies our answer.
On UK X Factor, some of the contestants who made it to the final shows despite questionable talent are Jedward (likeable enough teenage twins who couldn't sing in tune but performed outlandish routines and held a certain novelty factor) Wagner (put through by Louis Walsh even though there were far better singers in his category) and Same Difference, a brother/sister duo who were likeable enough, in a rather weak and cheesy way.
To assume that a TV talent show is always an equal platform is certainly naïve. It is quite true that acts may be put through who are less talented than other rejected acts, and it can only be assumed that the reason for this is due to entertainment value or to create a more varied set of finalists. Two singers with a similar style, for instance, will probably not be successful even though they may both be theoretically more gifted than other finalists. This is almost certainly to enhance the viewing experience, rather than to reflect the very best.
Fame for the Sake of Fame
A point often brought up these days is that every young person wants to be famous 'just for fame's sake.' A generation is growing up in a society that embraces the status of celebrity, even when some celebrities do not appear to actually 'do' anything much. In days gone by, celebrity status was achieved by being 'good' at something - and not just 'good', but one of the best in the game. Now, however, we have celebrities gracing the covers of magazines who do not actually seem to possess any particular talent at all. Think 'Big Brother' contestants, for example. Even though the fame might not be long lasting, for a period of time a certain percentage of the population wants to read about them. It is the era of the five-minute fame.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with languishing in your five-minutes fame. If you have your head on your shoulders and your feet on the ground, then why not go for it? But is it a different story when young people put all their hopes and dreams into becoming famous, instead of focusing on a traditional career? It sounds silly, but if you actually watch the auditions of many TV talent shows, there will always be contestants who admit that all they want in life is to be famous and for people to know who they are. Admittedly, these are often the unsuccessful, but it gives us a glimpse into the psyche of some of today's young people. Brought up on a diet of reality TV and celebrity magazines, many seem to have lost both the ambition and the desire to work hard towards a credible goal. They think they can 'make it' without the drive and determination, long hours and sacrifices made by those at the top.
It's not all about those who audition, either. Thousands of impressionable young people are fixated on shows like these, and become convinced that this is the path to the good life. Rather than nuture an ambition to become a doctor; scientist; teacher etc. too many teens become convinced that success is reached through becoming noticed in a TV talent show. Most of these young people will never have a shot at 'making it', simply because they do not possess the talent needed. Some seem to exist in a state of delusion, oblivious to the fact that they are just not up to the mark. The truth is that over 100,000 competitors may audition for a TV talent show, and only a handful will make the finals. Instant rejection may come as a short, sharp shock - and even then, many declare they will not give up but return again the following year. Some even verbally attack the judges who put an end to their dreams, convinced the rejection is a gross misjudgement.
But When Other Doors Remain Shut, a TV Talent Show Can Provide a Welcome Platform
Although they may have their faults, TV talent shows do have one huge positive - they offer contestants a platform from which they may show the world what they can do. It is a rare chance in an industry which all too often closes its doors to those who are not already successful. Quite simply, acquiring a deal with a record company (for instance) is a lot more difficult today than it once was. Getting even a big toe in the door, let alone a foot, can be almost impossible, as record companies prefer to deal with artitsts they deem a 'sure thing'. In this modern world when profit is usually the driving factor, taking risks over new artists who might not bring in the bucks is unfavorable with big bosses. It's a vicious circle, which is notoriously hard to break through.
So, then, who could blame the artist who desperately enters a TV talent show, after finding closed doors in every other direction? The auditions of a talent show are open to anyone - the young, the old, the in-between. Such shows can and do spark the beginnings of a career for truly gifted individuals who might otherwise never be heard.
But are contestants on such shows ever really taken seriously? It's a very valid question. Although there is clear proof that, for the talented few, entering a contest such as X Factor has been the stepping stone to a very rewarding career, for others it could mean the opposite. Although many viewers thoroughly enjoy shows like X Factor, this does not mean they will rush out to purchase records when the contest is done and dusted. As discussed earlier, many factors make for good television viewing, including entertainment value from the judges. People like supporting and voting for their favourite act, but so often the support ends with the final show. What's more, could 'fame' from a talent show even be detrimental to the future success of an artist? A contestant voted out early on may achieve a small amount of recognition; however they could also be perceived as a 'failure' or 'second best'. The raw truth is that, despite their growing popularity on TV, these shows are frowned upon by a whole section of the population who treat them as little more than a joke - and this unfortunately includes many respected figures in key industries.
Cheryl Cole (then Tweedy) audtioning for Popstars: The Rivals - One of the First Shows of its Kind
Cole with Alexandra Burke - Notable Winner at the 2008 X Factor Live Final
Inspiring Hopes and Dreams
In life, we all exist with hopes and dreams inside us. Sometimes, when we witness a success story it can bring alive something within us, and inspire us to realise our own ambitions. Living without dreams or passions can leave us with a certain emptiness, whether or not we care to admit it.
Whilst, as already discussed, disillusionment and a 'fame-for-the-sake-of-fame' attitude can be a negative factor arising from TV talent shows, anything that awakens our own true hopes and dreams can be the opposite. Many people become stuck in a rut, almost forgetting what they really want from life. Sometimes we believe our dreams are fruitless and not worthy of us as they 'only happen to other people'. We are just the 'ordinary ones,' destined for a mediocre 9 - 5 job that pays the rent, but which never makes us happy. Embedded in our minds is the rather pessimistic attitude that we have to settle with what we've got, because we can't have what we truly desire. Sometimes, of course, we are just being realistic. Sometimes, however, we are only held back in life by our own fears and negativity.
TV talent shows portray the stories of very 'ordinary' people who are given the chance to show a nation just what they can do. On programmes such as these, anyone has a shot, no matter who they are or where they have come from. Viewers of these shows identify with these very 'ordinary' contestants - and what's more, it is proof that real success is not confined to 'other' people. Not many will make it big, but some do - and they are likely to be the 'girl or boy next door'.
Cheryl Cole is currently one of the most well known celebrities in the UK. As a member of band 'Girls Aloud', a solo artist and a judge on UK X Factor, she attracts media attention whatever she does. Her relationship and failed marriage with footballer Ashley Cole is constantly invaded by the tabloids, and Cole cannot go far without being snapped by paparazzi. But from where did her success arise?
The truth is, Cheryl Cole would probably not be known at all had she not entered a certain TV talent show called 'Popstars: The Rivals'. It was one of the first shows of its kind, and now seems somewhat amateur when compared to the glitz and glamour that X Factor has become. The show produced one girl band and one boy band from successful candidates - Girls Aloud enjoyed great success, whilst the boy band sank before it had even begun to swim.
Cheryl Cole is an excellent example of how TV talent shows can inspire hopes and dreams in young people. She is proud of her roots - Cole (then Tweedy) was brought up modestly on a Newcastle council estate. She certainly struck lucky - but then, some could say that if a young girl from a council estate can make it to the top, doesn't anyone have a shot? Of course, many stars have risen from humble beginnings over the decades, but it still helps young people to see that you really don't have to come from anywhere special to get to where you want to in life. TV talent shows attract a broad mix of society - anyone from anywhere can enter, just as anyone can win. This is an important perception, for it is easy to become complacent in life because 'good things only happen to people from other places'. It is simply not true - it is about more than that, and if you have something special then it doesn't matter who you are or when you come from.
Notably, Cheryl Cole is not the best singer in the world. She is a beautiful woman with a certain likeability factor, but as far as great singers go, there are many more talented. If she had attempted to break the music industry by more traditional means, there has to be doubt over whether she could ever have succeeded. Even as a member of Girls Aloud, she does not have the strongest vocal by a long shot. So, why is it that Cheryl Cole has ended up becoming the most famous, sought-after woman from a band manufactured on Popstars: The Rivals?
Although Cheryl Cole first found fame after entering Popstars: The Rivals and thus in Girls Aloud, it could be argued that her career blossomed even more when she was asked by Simon Cowell to join the judging panel on UK X Factor. Instantly, Cole became the 'nation's sweetheart', as viewers warmed to her open, warm personality and her ability to wear her 'heart on her sleeve'. The rapport between Cole and Cowell was very noticeable - she wasn't afraid to tell him what was what, and the pair often ganged up against Louis Walsh. The first two years on the X Factor saw Cheryl Cole crowned (not literally) the winning judge, leading Alexandra Burke and Joe McElderry to victory.
So entering Popstars: The Rivals was the deciding factor of Cheryl Cole's entire career. In fact, it has dictated her whole adult life so far. Not only did it ensure her a place in a popular girl band, without it she would have been extremely unlikely to have ended up where she is today - judging talent shows just like the very one she auditioned for herself, as an enthusiastic nineteen year old with hopes and dreams.
Diversity - Bringing Street Dance to the Mainstream
In 2009, everyone watching thought Susan Boyle was sure to walk away from Britain's Got Talent as the winner, but this was not to be. Even though Boyle had already become an overnight sensation, she was pipped to the post by another, very radical, act. Talent shows such as Britain's Got Talent encourage all types of acts to enter, and one of the popular categories is dance. Diversity stepped before the judging panel as a street dance group of varying ages - young, cutting edge and something different. One could go as far as saying that Diversity brought street dance into the homes of people who would not normally watch it. Viewers did watch it; liked it; voted the group into first place. Ever since, street dance acts have entered talent shows in rising numbers.
Diversity is an act that has remained popular in the two years following their first introduction to the nation. Much of their success must surely be accredited to their brilliant choreographer, Ashley Banjo. His creative and innovative routines are just what first caught the eye of Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden, as well as everyone else who happened to be watching. Perri Luc Kiely, one of the younger members of the group, also stands out - performing many solo moves, he is often cited as the favourite by Diversity's fans.
Diversity were certainly credible winners of Britain's Got Talent, and it's probably true to say that entering the competition changed their lives for the better. The platform of TV talent show gave them a chance to shine in a way that might not have been possible without it. After all, even though a music artist might find a way to the top without entering a talent show (many still manage this if they can stand out from the crowds) street dance is a whole different ball game. Have talent shows paved the way for dance acts to enter the mainstream and gain prominence with a whole new audience? It is food for thought.
Diversity Performing at the Royal Variety Show - For winners of Britain's Got Talent, this is part of the prize
Mass Marketing and Domination of Industry
One of the criticisms of TV talent shows - UK X Factor in particular - is the fact that huge budgets allow them to dominate and dictate the market, to an extent. For example, after weeks of prolific television exposure in a prime-time slot (as well as conveniently reaching an end mid-December) the Christmas number one single is almost guaranteed to be the winner's offering from X Factor. Even very well known, highly successful music artists have been known to put off releasing their own new records to avoid clashing with Cowell's 'machine', as it has become known.
The power of Simon Cowell's X Factor 'machine' has found many enemies. In fact, Christmas 2009 saw the first seasonal number one in several years that was not performed by the winner of X Factor. To say that it was unrelated, however, would be an untruth. Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' was announced as the Christmas number one that year, as a direct result of an intensive Facebook campaign to knock the complacent Cowell and his money-making machine off the top spot. It worked, and the adeptly named Rage Against the Machine enjoyed a surprise comeback with a political undertone. Joe McElderry's 'The Climb' settled for number two, making him the sole X Factor winner not to hit the top spot.
The message here is that, whilst TV talent shows like X Factor certainly enable good singers to showcase their talents on national TV when it is otherwise difficult to find an open door, the flip side of the coin is that corporations like this can also force out musicians who enter through the more traditional methods. Money means power and, all too often, power dictates. As happens all too often these days, large companies push their ideas and demands onto the public and get away with it (Tesco is another example, although that is another story). Joe McElderry lost out because, just once, somebody decided to fight back. The following year, X Factor was back in the top spot.
So, are television talent shows ultimately a good thing or a bad thing? They are cetainly popular with a large section of viewers, dominating prime time weekend slots. They produce winners, and can even produce huge stars who go on to achieve massive global success - although I would emphasise that this is perhaps the minority, rather than the majority. At the same time, they can also produce 'losers'; those who are ridiculed and humiliated for their disillusioned belief that they have something to offer. This could, in susceptible individuals, lead to depression and loss of self-esteem, which is unsupported by the producers and staff.
For those who can take rejection and a few knocks, then perhaps there is nothing wrong with entering a TV talent show - some would undoubtedly say it is the best step they have ever made. However, it is not an equal platform - often acts are put through who are less talented than other rejected acts. I would speculate that this is for the purpose of entertainment and to create a varied set of finalists.
Many people take shows like X Factor incredibly seriously, yet at the same time it is still a game, encased in a flashy environment. The ultimate point of the show, whatever those like Simon Cowell may say, is to attract an audience and to make money. Yes, Simon Cowell insists he is passionate about discovering the next 'big star' - and I am sure he is. Yet, finding that star is synonymous with producing a show that is a success in its own right - and that means pleasing the viewers at home. There is almost always a contestant that viewers love to hate, often with a comedic angle, who some people even claim to vote for just to see how long they can hang in there against the 'real' contenders. Last year on UK X Factor, identical twins Jedward were something of a novelty act with poor vocals. Simon Cowell despaired of them, whilst fellow Irish judge and mentor Louis Walsh praised them. The very fact that they remained in the show for so long sparked humorous contention between Cowell and Walsh, which only adds to the argument that sparring between judges is all part of the show, influenced by the mentor's chosen finalists.
Still, it's all in the name of the game. Each year, hundreds of thousands try their luck at the auditions of TV talent shows, hoping that they are in with a shot. Viewers at home will embrace . the good and ridicule the bad. YouTube will offer the chance to see the best again. For the mentally stable with a realistic perception, there is probably nothing wrong with entering such a show. Whatever stance one takes, it certainly seems as though television talent shows are here to stay.