Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Failure, Humiliation Drive "American Idol"

The ever-intrepid Cinemonkey provided the following in yesterday's post about the television show "American Idol", which I want to see ended forever:

As an inveterate Devil's Advocate, how do you explain AI's popularity (& to this day, to me, AI means "Artificial Intelligence"), &, what "reality shows" do you find entertaining, if any."

Fair question. Here's my response.

The Popularity: I believe it was reporter H.L Mencken who once said "No one ever lost a dollar underestimating the taste of the American public."

The audience at home are told they can participate in the voting process for selecting winners. I don't buy that for a minute. Producers of such show carefully construct who is to win, and while audiences may temper that decision, it is definitely not theirs to make. But the "participation factor" does attract viewers.

I think most viewers tune in to see who loses, not who wins.

That explains why each "season" begins with a wide range of "auditions" and the focus is on the people who fail miserably. And don't kid yourself -- most of those who fail and appear on television have been carefully selected - in fact I am sure they are likely coached or created by the show's producers. The object of these shows is to allow the audience to again feel as if they are participating and because viewers want to see people fail.

More proof of that - while viewers number in the tens of millions, the record sales of "winners" or near-winners, are a few million at best. If audiences tuned in to see winners, those sales numbers would be higher.

In the old-timey days of television, talent shows, like the one from Arthur Godfrey, featured actual performers, singers, songwriters, and musicians who found fame based on their talents - Elvis is one case of success. For a fine representation of just how created and orchestrated game shows are and have always been, check out the fact-based "Quiz Show" movie.

These days, the advertising hook on "reality shows" is to "tune in and see who's eliminated this week!"

As for what if any of such shows I watch -- the only show like this I've ever watched from start to finish was the one on the Sci-Fi channel last year, "Who Wants to be a Superhero". The mighty man of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, was the main reason I watched. It was fun to see him work and the superheroes he provided were most entertaining to me. But it was all very, very carefully crafted and written and had little to do with "reality".

Make no mistake - film and television producers are manufacturers first and last. They make products to sell products. It has always been so. A studio selected a performer, gave them lessons in everything from dance to elocution lessons, created a specific look provided by make-up and other technical effects, created stories to highlight the performer as "heroic" or as an "average person" or as a "villian" or "comedian" or any type needed to create a certain type of performer.

And that brings us to my problem with "American Idol" -- it isn't about excellence. It's about the mediocre attempting to be more than mediocre. It promotes the barely talented into the music world and programmers on radio and television follow the popular trend and feature these mediocre types because they have momentary fame. Actual musicians are sidelined while the flavor of the week is pushed onto audiences as something of value.

I am well aware I am not a typical or average viewer. As a writer, I prefer to see dramas and comedies which are well-written, acted and produced. Television and movies are first and foremost entertainment fantasies -- reality is mimicked not captured whole and intact.

Allow me to share a video with you. It is not manufactured (as far as I can tell, though it is edited from surveillance cameras). We see a would-be thief attempting to rob a liquor store and, yes, he fails and does so in spectacular stupidity. His only success is in getting arrested. It makes me laugh because of his failure.

UPDATE: Not longer after I posted this today, I read Sarcastro's Confession that he tuned into to the "American Idol" against his better judgement and his take underscores what I said -- It's Failure That Drives The Show:

"I want to see abject failure.

I want to see people so self-deluded that they refuse to believe that they can't sing despite all evidence to the contrary. Bring me more people whose friends and family are too spineless to tell them that they have absolutely no talent. Load me up with losers who have placed their entire concept of self-worth on staggeringly unrealistic dreams of stardom."


  1. The actual Mencken quote:

    "No one in this world, so far as I know -- and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me -- has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

  2. Thanks for the correction, Andy.

    I love the part that says he "searched" for years and even "employed agents to help me".

    Who could doubt such an intense quest? heh heh.

  3. Great minds think alike.

  4. I used to find the audition episodes of American Idol funny. Now I find it too mean-spirited to really enjoy.