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Brace yourself

It's time to talk about quality reality TV. Networks are beginning to realize what works, and a prime example, American Idol, couldn't return at a better time.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2003


It was a rare chance to see a theory validated.

When CBS' revamped version of Star Search premiered Jan. 8, it was the antithesis of a televised talent show I'd criticized for months: American Idol.

Idol allows its judges to insult contestants. Star Search would avoid abusive comments. Idol targets young (ages 16 to 24) contestants with little or no show-biz experience. Star Search features performers of all ages who haven't found stardom.

Idol is a cynical, exploitative exercise, a program that humiliates contestants for viewer entertainment disguised as an earnest search for gifted singers. Star Search is a straight-up talent show plunked down on TV.

And its debut was hopelessly, incredibly, outrageously boring.

Can it be? Are the very qualities that make a reality TV show a critic's nightmare the stuff that feeds its success wth viewers?

Does the genre demand the kinds of excess that critics have typically rejected?

And if America goes ga-ga for a show that offends the traditional notion of quality TV, should a critic get off his high horse and just enjoy it already?

"In the beginning, we all made fun of the goofy quality of it all. . . . Then we watched Survivor and had to admit it was pretty compelling and interesting -- guilty pleasure mode," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Now, I think we're moving into the third stage of this 12-step program . . . (admitting) that in the grand scheme of things, these shows actually give you some insights."

Ken Warwick, the executive producer in charge of exporting the British-born Idol formula internationally (new Idol formats will soon debut in Canada and France), said that even some of the program's producers have misunderstood the show's goal.

"Whenever we bring the show to a new country, I sit the producers down and ask them to tell me what Idol is all about," said Warwick, his British accent adding an energetic lilt to his words.

"They always say it's about finding the best singer, the most perfect pop icon, and they're wrong. In reality, this show is about the broken dreams of all the people who lose, until we reach the final winner."

Certainly, America has already voted with its remotes, handing impressive ratings to nearly every one of the six reality shows that debuted in early January, including Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette, Star Search, High School Reunion and The Surreal Life.

Networks love reality TV for two reasons: It's generally cheaper than scripted programming (though escalating producers' fees and insurance costs are changing that), and it's a magnet for young viewers weary of typical TV forms.

Reality has particularly propped up ABC and Fox, which have been given a ratings boost by The Bachelor/Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire at a time when viewers have largely rejected their scripted programs.

So it was no surprise when ABC announced last week that five reality shows would air in a revolving "wheel" on Wednesdays and Thursdays, scheduled from February to April (including Are You Hot: The Search for America's Sexiest People, the survival show I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! and the return of Extreme Makeover). six more are planned for summer.

But the industry is still holding its breath for the return Tuesday night of Fox's 800-pound reality TV gorilla: American Idol 2.

Last year's Idol electrified audiences like CBS's Survivor series did over the summer of 2000; by Idol's end in September, 40-million viewers tuned in to watch Texas native Kelly Clarkson take the top prize.

And this year's Idol couldn't return at a better time. The last time TV saw such a flood of reality programs, shows such as Temptation Island, The Mole, Popstars, Boot Camp and Chains of Love debuted in early 2001 to mostly uneven success.

This time, six reality shows debuted in one week to mostly stellar ratings, cementing the audience's love for the genre.

"The quality level has ramped up, and the networks have realized what works," said Andy Dehnart, an English lecturer at Stetson University in Deland and the administrator of a Web site devoted to reality TV, realityblurred.com. "Maybe they're putting more thought into what goes on-air," Dehnart said. "The same thing that makes Friends and Seinfeld and Alias good shows makes a good reality TV show."

Indeed, it turns out that American Idol is one of the more sophisticated reality shows on television, emerging as three shows in one.

Initially, it's a humiliation show, serving up a wide array of singers for judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson to compliment or eviscerate. Cowell's cutting commentaries on last year's show turned him into a twisted pop culture icon of sorts, allowing him to pitch his own reality show to CBS, dubbed Cupid (fans better pay attention this year: Cowell's already said he's not doing a third version of American Idol).

As viewers get to know the competitors and they're whittled down, Idol morphs into a more typical reality game show as viewers begin choosing who stays and who leaves, and the competition escalates.

Finally, toward the end of the show, the quality of competition elevates to the point where Idol becomes a more conventional talent show and the selection process focuses on picking the best performer among those left.

"The genius of American Idol is . . . that Simon and his antics provide the floor show to keep you entertained until (viewers) get to know the competitors as characters," said Syracuse University's Thompson. "It's an absolutely ingenious way to turn a talent competition into a miniseries."

This time around, producers traveled to Miami; New York City; Detroit; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles to audition about 50,000 hopefuls. About 230 were picked for a huge audition in early December at the Alex Theater in Glendale, Calif.

Aimee Pinna, a 22-year-old Riverview resident picked for the Glendale event after passing three auditions in Miami, said the crop of singers in this year's Idol seemed much tougher than the crowd she saw on TV in the first edition.

"There were people who would sing and the hair would raise up on your neck. . . . They brought me to tears," said Pinna, a Hillsborough Community College dance student who tried out for the show in part to inspire her dad, Colin MacPherson, recently diagnosed with colon cancer.

"I've seen a lot of people on the Internet giving us flak for not paying any dues (for Idol-size stardom)," she said, noting that Fox has barred those who traveled to California from revealing how they fared (Brandon native Jessica Justice, 24, also won a spot in California after auditioning in Miami).

"But we had to take time off jobs and school . . . leave our families . . . all of that to pursue a dream," Pinna said. "A lot of people don't realize what we go through."

Still, the aspiring singer doesn't agree with those who say the show's young contestants are being humiliated and exploited (for instance, an article on Salon.com said that Idol's contracts restrict winner Clarkson to a $1,400 fee for participating in a future reunion, no matter how big a star she is when it happens).

"I think they're just brutally honest," she said, echoing the party line voiced by Cowell and others on the show when asked about exposing young singers to snide remarks from the judges. "The worst thing Simon said to me was (imitates a snooty British accent): 'You are by far not the best singer in this competition.' I'm like, 'So what else is new?' Next!"

This year, Idol spends its first four episodes showing how the 230 aspirants were winnowed down to 32. In the fourth episode, scheduled for Jan. 29, viewers will see contestants herded into three rooms, with 16 people inside each room.

Two rooms will be told they're heading to the semifinals; one will learn that it's out of the competition. Expect the camera to linger on that last space, which is packed with young hopefuls who have just learned that their life's dream is over.

Warwick said that America's reaction to the show's sometimes harsh treatment of its contestants was his biggest concern in bringing Idol to the United States (nowadays, he's more worried about padding out later episodes as the number of contestants dwindle and making onscreen placement of sponsors' products less obvious).

"In America, it's not the way for a bunch of adults to sit behind a desk and tell a 16-year-old 'You (are terrible),"' the producer said. "But as Simon has said, if you give them any hope, all they keep doing is coming back and wasting money on clothes and demo tapes and voice lessons. You have to be honest and tell them they will never be a singer."

Referencing a former NBC executive's analogy comparing reality TV to crack cocaine for networks, executives have promised they will not let it overwhelm their schedules -- even as they load more shows into prime time.

"They are bringing in huge numbers of new viewers," ABC entertainment president Susan Lyne told TV critics at a Hollywood press conference last week. "So yes, we are definitely going to make our way into this new programming craze, but absolutely not at the expense of developing and nurturing our scripted programming."

Thompson said that TV viewers today have witnessed something that hasn't happened in 50 years: the emergence of a fresh genre of television, one kicked off a dozen years ago with MTV's 10-kids-in-a-house reality soap opera, The Real World, and cemented with the success of Idol, Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette and others.

"There's two things we can call for," Thompson said. "First, it shouldn't knock everything else off the air. We don't want the virus of this to infect the entire entertainment industry. And critics can now call for the first masterpiece of the form."

But those who cling to traditional notions of TV quality may find themselves stymied when trying to judge the quality of this new genre.

"Unfortunately, when (reality TV) is being done well, it's doing a lot of other things badly: playing fast and loose with the values of how we think people should be treated on television," Thompson said. "But I still believe somebody can take this genre, with all its sleazy elements intact, and make a true TV masterpiece."

Whether critics will recognize that masterpiece when it happens, well, that's another question.

- Material from Times wires was used in this report. To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com .

* * *

AT A GLANCE: American Idol 2 debuts Tuesday night at 8 on WTVT-Ch. 13.

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