Month: January 2012

A Guilty Pleasure that I don’t have to feel so guilty about – how “talent show” TV might be getting a little less grubby

It’s time to come out of the closet and admit to what you’ve probably all suspected. I’ve long been a secret devoted fan of the talent show concept. Ever since my little sister’s childhood friend sang his stuttering heart out on the original Pop Idol (what did happen to Gareth Gates) I’ve been a little bit hooked by this televisual opiate. I was a sucker for the emotional manipulation, the sob stories, the “redemption” stories and along the way a few people who could sing.

Whether it was Pop Idol, American Idol, Britain’s got Susan Boyle, or X-factor, I was hooked.

That is, until this year.

In a post a couple of months back I highlighted this Daily Mash article a pertinent analysis of just how awful The X-factor had become, but to be honest it had been going that way for a long while. For too long, the Simon Cowell industry had been picking on the vulnerable, laughing at the weak and then glorifying fame-hungry mediocrity. And we’d put up with it. Initially it was guilty fun, and then after a while we were just watching hoping against hope for a Leona Lewis or Susan Boyle moment that never came.

This year when they put the banally talentless and mindless Frankie Cocozza through to the live stages of the show just to kick him off in a staged “scandal” (so that they could bring back the initial favourite in an effort to protect her in the run up to the final,) I knew that the show had long outstayed it’s welcome on my Sky+ box and it was time to quit. As far as I was concerned that was it, the talent show format was basically dead. It may thrash around for a while as Syco applies the defribulators, but it will only be delaying the inevitable.

Then something strange happened.

This is where it gets embarrassing. Don’t ask why, but a couple of weeks back I was perusing the Anytime+ offering on Sky and came across their version of the talent show : “Got to Dance”. Now these kind of shows are ten a penny, but like I say, I’m a sucker for them and so decided to check it out, expecting the standard deluge of idiots dancing badly, punctuated by someone who is a bit better but who is told “that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen” by a bunch of nonentity judges who are just towing the company line. I knew to expect that because that’s how the show was last year – why would it be any different?

But then something happened – The first auditionee was really good, chills down the spine good. OK, they just wanted to start well and then say “the good start couldn’t last long”, but no, the next act was pretty damn good too. As was the third and fourth. Then they stopped and did a bit of a background story on a geeky looking nerd. Obviously he was going to be rubbish. Except he wasn’t. He was pretty good, not excellent, but pretty impressive for someone who had learnt it from basically watching TV. And then the further surprise was that they didn’t put him through. They praised what he had done, gave him some solid constructive criticism, but didn’t blow smoke up his arse and tell him he was amazing.

This continued throughout. A series of surprisingly good or even excellent performances, followed by passionate “nearly” performances. The personal background stories were there, but they weren’t sob stories, the performances tending to tell you everything you needed to know.

The common thread through each and every performance was the participants’ genuine, heartwarming passion for what they were doing and the joy, originality and liberation that they expressed whilst they were doing it. There were no equivalents of the tone-deaf halfwits that you make up 75% of the X-factor audition stages. Even the 5% of people who were a bit rubbish were rubbish in such a vibrant fun way that you couldn’t help but enjoy and applaud their performances.

I was also really impressed by the attitude of the judges – it didn’t feel like there was any agenda or quota to fill and they made their deliberations and judgements on the true merits of what they saw. Even more enjoyable was the fact that they so clearly loved watching other dancers and seemed genuinely inspired by what they saw. When Simon Cowell sees that one special singer that makes people sit up and take notice, you know that all he is seeing is dollar signs. When the three judges on Got to Dance (Kimberley from the Pussycat dolls, Ashley from Diversity and Adam Garcia from um… some tapdancing thing) see the equivalent all they seem to be thinking is “Can they teach ME how to do that!”

OK I still feel slightly embarrassed about enjoying that so much, but I didn’t feel grubby afterwards, I actually felt excited and happy. OK I know I’m sharing too much, but I think it is important.

The reason I think this is important is that I’m hoping this is part of a bigger trend. For too long in this country we have celebrated mediocrity and allowed ourselves to feel superior by watching the failings of people who don’t know any better. And maybe, just maybe, someone has realised that we’re better than that. Maybe we want to be inspired and humbled by the endeavours of people who are really striving for excellence for it’s own sake. Maybe we can start to follow their example.

Maybe I’m being too naively optimistic, after all Sky1’s “Must be the Music” (a music talent show aimed at finding original new talent rather than derivative karoake singers) was cancelled after only one season. But I hope not.

Part of this goes back to my “manifesto for sustainable communications”. I know it is just TV, but in their own way, shows like “Got to Dance” promote striving towards excellence (rather than being content with notoriety and infamy and fame for fame’s sake.) In doing so they may inspire the next generation to work towards excellence of their own, which in turn will create more role models for us to celebrate. That’s sustainable media, and we have a bit more of it maybe I can start enjoying more moments like this