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Idol threat

More talent shows are coming, including a revival of Star Search. But are these programs discovering talent or serving as cheap knockoffs?

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 25, 2002


Like many longtime musicians, Jimmy James has a talent for cutting to the chase when he has to.

The topic at hand: the rising tide of American Idol-style talent contests coming to TV next year, likely inspired by the blockbuster success of Fox's teen-oriented singing competition.
photo
[Photo: Fox]
Fox’s 30 Seconds to Fame is a bargain basement talent show reminiscent of The Gong Show.

As the longtime guitarist for '80s popsters Tommy Tutone (867-5309), James has been around the music block a time or two. We met last Monday, when the rocker joined local entertainment industry types to judge WQYK-FM's end of USA Network's Nashville Star talent contest.

I had to ask: As a professional with more than 20 years in the biz, doesn't it burn his cookies to see shows like Idol make superstars of kids with barely enough experience to turn the microphone on?

"When you're a kid, people tell you you've got to practice and work hard to succeed, but once you get up the ladder a little bit, you realize that's not what it's all about," said James, entertainment director at Stumps Supper Club in Tampa. (He still plays the occasional Tutone gig.)

"Today . . . people want to be entertained," he added, noting that the local winner, 34-year-old Clearwater singer/songwriter Michael Graves, lit up the room with a spirited cover of King of the Road. "They're not looking for artistry. I had to learn that the hard way."

James' words may be prophetic, as TV welcomes a flood of new talent showcases next year. In addition to Nashville Star, which will eventually feature 10 contestants vying for a Sony Music recording contract on USA Network in March, CBS is reviving that venerated talent showcase Star Search, and Fox will offer American Idol 2.

Already, Fox has 30 Seconds to Fame, a bargain basement talent showcase that unfolds like a newfangled Gong Show (executive producer Mike Binkow proudly calls it the lowest-cost show on prime time network TV). And programs ranging from NBC's Today show to The Caroline Rhea Show have featured their own singing contests.

What gives? As TV viewers sort through all these contests, are we changing the definition of talent for today's performers?

And if the meaning of "superstar talent" does change to include folks like Idol winner Kelly Clarkson -- who just scored an American Music Award nomination as favorite new artist -- does that mean such prepackaged banalities will now forever be seen as the height of pop music achievement?

"These aren't really talent shows, . . . they're lowest common denominator shows," said David Wild, a critic for Rolling Stone magazine who also hosts the interview series Musicians for the Bravo cable channel. "They don't come up with the next Duke Ellington or Bob Dylan. I actually think Kelly Clarkson has a nice voice, . . . but she sounds more like the last person who just had a hit out (than a groundbreaking artist)."
photo
[Photo: Fox]
Justin Guarini was the runner-up in Fox’s first American Idol show. American Idol 2 will debut next year.

Indeed, American Idol came along at a crucial time in both the TV and music industries.

TV has used the unpredictable veneer of reality TV to recharge several old genres, from hidden camera shows to game shows and now the talent contest. These shows mix ambition, real emotion and a heaping dose of humiliation, drawing the young viewers whom advertisers love in the bargain.

The music industry, meanwhile, is in chaos, unsure where the next trend is coming from as the era of boy bands and teen divas is breaking down. With little idea of what acts to sign or how to market them, music business bigwigs desperately need the marketing jump-start a hit TV show can provide.

No wonder both industries are jumping at the chance to build TV shows around unknown (meaning cheap and easily controlled) performers whose development is tightly controlled by the corporations that will earn the most from their stardom.

"What's interesting about American Idol is that I didn't even see (the final victory) going to the most beautiful person. . . . It went towards what the consensus was -- apparently, someone who sings like Celine Dion," Wild said. "I've got this weird feeling that America is reverting to high school . . . (and) people watching American Idol voted for who they related to."

And when such shows purport to be talent contests -- claiming to choose a potential superstar from a field of thousands -- doesn't that skew the notion of what artistic talent really is?

Not for Nashville Star executive producer Howard Owens, who compares their process to plucking an 18-year-old basketball prodigy out of high school to play in the NBA.

"Usually, it takes anywhere from two to 10 years to become a successful Nashville music artist," Owens said. "What we've done is condense that down into eight weeks. And because the audience can vote in, we're allowing America to weigh in on who they want to be their artist of choice."

Of course, "America" will have only 10 options to choose from, plucked from a field of thousands by the show's producers and 43 radio stations across the nation, including WQYK.

Nashville Star will unfold over eight episodes in March, mimicking the process by which Nashville grooms its real-life stars. Contestants will work with talent coaches, songwriters, stylists and choreographers, training for the big leagues with the intensity of any athlete.

In a process similar to American Idol, a panel of judges and the viewing audience will each choose a contestant to be eliminated each week. But because the competition requires hopefuls to sing both a cover tune and an original composition, Owens said, Nashville Star won't feature "canned people" mimicking an established artist's style, a format some TV contests employ.

"We're acknowledging that it's really hard to market an artist, so we're letting the nation market the artist first," he added, noting that the contest doesn't focus on young performers, as Idol does. "John Q. Public is dictating what he wants to see and what he doesn't want to see. And that's life."

Given the Idol-fed interest in televised talent shows, reviving Star Search seems like a serious no-brainer.

The original, which aired in syndication beginning in 1983, was hosted by Ed McMahon and featured performers further along in their careers than most Idol wanna-bes, including Britney Spears, Sinbad, Rosie O'Donnell, Usher, Alanis Morissette and Kevin James.

CBS's revival, expected to debut in January, will feature a new, soon-to-be-announced host and aspirants competing in four categories: adult singers (age 18 and up), comedians (age 18 and up), supermodels (women, ages 18 to 28) and junior singers (ages 8 to 14).

Winners will be chosen by tabulating the votes of four judges and the public; eventually, those winners will compete in a final showdown.

But one thing executive producer Andrew Golder promises the new Star Search won't do: insult the contestants.

"It's not about tearing anybody down," said Golder, reached in Los Angeles, where producers are wrapping up auditions for the show after seeing 10,000 hopefuls in seven cities. "American Idol did something new . . . focus on the good and the bad. But that's not where we want to go."

Instead, Golder hopes to re-create a good old-fashioned variety show, where the tension comes from waiting for the word from judges. "Every 15 minutes, someone's going to win and someone's going to lose," he said. "Hopefully, it comes off like that moment where the figure skaters come off the ice and wait for the judges' score."

But in a TV universe where the key ingredient for reality TV success seems to be humiliating participants, will enough channel surfers warm to Golder's old-fashioned approach? That may be the real Star Search cliffhanger.
photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Michael Graves performs in the local Nashville Star contest at Stumps Supper Club in Tampa. The 34-year-old singer-songwriter from Clearwater, who now works as a software consultant, won this competition and next heads to a regional contest Jan. 12.

Meanwhile, local Nashville Star winner Graves is just happy to have a second shot at stardom. A performer since before puberty, he scored a record deal with a Los Angeles band more than 10 years ago, only to see it dissolve into a too-typical industry horror story.

Now working as a software consultant, he next goes to a regional competition Jan. 12. If successful there, he'll head to Nashville, where he's hoping to catch the eye of an enterprising producer, snagging a record deal even if he isn't crowned the Nashville star.

For him, all this talk of redefining talent and denigrating pop music is irrelevant, because he's ready to do whatever it takes to bring his artistry to the world -- even if it means singing a song or two on a so-called reality show.

"Back in the days of Elvis, all you had to do was get a disc burned with your music on it and walk into a radio station," Graves said. "The growth of media has made it more complicated for an artist. You have to take every opportunity you can."

Big discoveries

Here's a gallery of celebrities whose first taste of fame came from national talent contests.

FRANK SINATRA: One of the Hoboken Four singing group on Major Bowles' radio show, The Original Amateur Hour, in 1937.

GLADYS KNIGHT: Appeared on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, a TV descendant of Bowles' show that aired from 1948 to 1970.

TONY BENNETT: Seen on TV mainstay Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, which debuted in 1948.

MARE WINNINGHAM: The actor made her TV debut as a 16-year-old singer on The Gong Show, which aired from 1976 to 1980 on NBC and in syndication.

BRAD GARRETT: The Everybody Loves Raymond star was a $100,000 comedy winner on the first version of Star Search.

* * *

-- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com .

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