Has video killed the radio star…again? The Buggles' video of the same name famously launched MTV in 1981, and 30 years later television is continuing to make its unique mark within the music world.
Music and TV have been partners in creating pop stars since the dawn of the medium in the late '40s, when the popular radio show talent competition "The Original Amateur Hour," hosted by Ted Mack, segued to the small screen, helping to launch the careers of Gladys Knight, Ann-Margret and Pat Boone, among others. Programs such as "The Ed Sullivan Show," a variety show featuring musical acts that ran until 1971, and "Star Search," a talent show debuting in 1983, continued the trend. But it wasn't until "American Idol" debuted in 2002 as a Fox summer replacement series that the concept reached critical mass.
Based on the UK pop series "Pop Idol," which was a spinoff of the Australian show "Popstars," the idea behind "American Idol" was a singing contest, judged by industry professionals, in which the viewers voted for the winner by phone and text. The show was a success from the very start, averaging 12.7 million viewers per episode as that summer's highest-rated show in the 18–49 demo. By 2006 "American Idol" was attracting an average of 31.7 million viewers per episode, while the next year's season premiere peaked at 41 million viewers.
Since those heady times, "American Idol" viewing had been eroding precipitously, and before this year's 10th season, returning producer Nigel Lythgoe made several significant changes, including hiring new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez to join original judge Randy Jackson, signing on industry veteran Jimmy Iovine as a mentor, and lowering the eligibility age for contestants to 15. The moves helped stabilize ratings, with May's finale averaging 29.3 million viewers and a 9.2 rating in the 18–49 demo, up more than 21 percent in viewers and 12 percent in ratings compared to last year. It was the first time the finale received such a viewership bump in five seasons.
"It became tune-in television again," says Shirley Halperin, music editor for The Hollywood Reporter and author of the show's authorized history, American Idol: Celebrating 10 Years. "You wanted to hear what wackiness would come out of Steven Tyler's mouth next."
"American Idol"'s success has spawned a group of similar music-based shows, including NBC's "The Voice" and "The Sing-Off," a show for a cappella groups featuring Sara Bareilles as a judge; Bravo's "Platinum Hit," a competition for songwriters; Simon Cowell's new show "The X Factor," scheduled to debut in September; and arguably the most successful music show of all time, the fictionalized music-based comedy drama "Glee." Each show has arrangements with major music companies to help break discovered talent, including Sony Music Entertainment ("The X Factor," "Glee" and "Platinum Hit") and Universal Music Group ("American Idol" and "The Voice").
Featuring GRAMMY-nominated recording artist Jewel as host and ex-"American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi, "Platinum Hit" is Bravo's pop tunesmith answer to "Top Chef" and "Project Runway." Jes Hudak, a singer/songwriter from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was a contestant on the show's first season, says it has been a boon for her career.
"The whole goal is exposure, and getting my music to the people it's going to mean something to," says Hudak. "We get such harsh feedback from people in the industry, and what really matters are the people who listen, buy your music and connect with what you're saying."
While major labels are on the receiving end of previously vetted talent, artists that already have name recognition and legions of Facebook and Twitter followers, platinum sales for TV show contestants and winners isn't a given. Does the show's democratic voting process result in a lowest-common-denominator winner, preventing what truly makes a musical superstar — something unique and compelling and sometimes even off-putting? And while "Glee" has sold millions of downloads and albums, has anyone yet emerged from its cast as a superstar?
"It's no longer about record sales," says Halperin, who points to Adam Lambert as an example of a unique "American Idol" alumnus. "You have to think about Broadway, 'Glee,' making a viral video, blogging about 'American Idol,' [or] becoming a Fox News correspondent covering the show. If you didn't win, you have to be willing to embrace your past."
What separates "American Idol" from its competition is the glimpse of transformational reality we get into how pop stars are groomed, allowing the audience to become vested in its chosen favorites' destiny.
"Scotty McCreery started out as [someone] who couldn't even carry on a conversation," says Halperin about "American Idol"'s season 10 winner. "Fourteen weeks later, he was this engaged, charming and media savvy professional who's being molded into a potential country star."
It is precisely that feeling of emotional involvement the other music competition shows are also trying to convey.
"The competitive atmosphere is not for everybody," says Hudak. "I wanted to show enough of my personality so people could relate to me as a human being as well as an artist. This is a way to really push my skills. It's all about pure feedback, growth and getting better."
With shows such as "American Idol" now producing artists who have been fans from the show's beginning, it makes it much more difficult to find where reality ends and artifice begins, especially in a landscape where these series are proliferating.
"The traditional route of becoming a pop singer is not an option for [new contestants]," observes Halperin. "Their problem is the 120 finalists who came before them, and have had that much more time in the media and public consciousness. The smart ones take the [money] they make from the ['American Idol'] tour and put it in the bank."
While the current industry climate presents a mountain of challenges for aspiring pop stars, music TV shows will likely continue to be a magnet for them.
"It gives you the best possible chance to succeed," says Halperin. "But a lot of things have to come together for it to ultimately happen."
(Roy Trakin has been senior editor at HITS magazine since he still had hair, and has written for every defunct rock publication that did and didn't matter. He is also the author of biographies on Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks and Sting.)