Production Values

American Idol lets us feel their pain

Even in hindsight, the popularity of American Idol is difficult to explain, or at least to predict. Unlike the Swedish Expedition Robinson, which spawned the hugely successful Survivor, Britain’s Pop Idol entered the American market with little advance buzz. In fact, according to Simon Cowell in his memoir- cum-guide to stardom, I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But , U.S. networks worried the show would be “another Popstars,” a previous British import that had been “a failure” for the WB. After repeated rejections AI finally debuted on Fox in summer 2002—at which point, to the surprise of everyone, it quickly became the most popular program on the air. “People kept telling us that we shouldn’t expect the success of the first season,” Cowell reports, but despite the nay-saying the numbers have only continued to grow, until what started as a mid-season replacement is now a “billion-dollar brand.” A super-chipper Paula Abdul elaborates: American Idol isn’t just a television show, it’s a phenomenon” that has sold 17 million CDs, generated 2 million concert ticket sales, moved $50 million in merchandise, and spawned 15 million text messages on top of hundreds of millions of telephone votes. During the fifth-season finale, a gleeful Ryan Seacrest announced that the single episode had received in excess of 63 million votes—“more than any president in the history of our country.” Since some individuals vote “up to 200 times” (a feat even Karl Rove would have a hard time engineering, with or without the help of Diebold voting machines), Seacrest’s comparison should be taken with a grain of salt. More quantifiable are the 28 million viewers who tune in to each season’s forty or so episodes, generating advertising revenues that surely dwarf the figures just cited. On top of this, dozens of spin-offs run concurrently around the globe: yea, verily, the sun never sets on the Idol empire.

These numbers seem even more remarkable when you compare AI to the competition: it lacks the dramatically grueling conditions under which contestants on Survivor or The Amazing Race labor, and, with the exception of a few hotel antics early in the season, eschews the risqué exhibitionism of The Bachelor or Temptation Island. But: “Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned talent show, after all?” Terry Piper, Ph.D., asks in The Invisible Revolution: Clay Aiken and the Fans Who Made Him a Star, apparently not realizing that the answer, as Simon Cowell discovered when he shopped AI around, was American television audiences. Dr. Piper attributes the show’s appeal to “a general yearning” in the wake of 9/11 “for simpler times when more traditional values prevailed,” an assessment that seems a tad reductive, if not simply reactionary, given that almost every reality show to achieve success in the post-9/11 era proffers a straight‑ forward mix of sex and greed. Once AI was picked up, however, a few factors did work in its favor. For a start, reality TV had become the hot topic by 2002, and any new offering profited from intense industry and amateur scrutiny. Viewers responded particularly well to host Ryan Seacrest, AIs answer to Dorian Gray, and Simon Cowell, AIs so-called “nasty man,” perhaps the most popular figure television audiences have loved to hate since J. R. Ewing (or at least since Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor).

But still, none of these factors—not even the pink-cheeked appeal of the show’s contestants, about which more later—explains such Malthusian success. In one sense, Paula nailed it when she called AI a “phenomenon—a happy confluence of circumstances sustained by the same banal yet powerful complex of mythologizing misperceptions that saddled the world with Star Wars and Harry Potter. Though hardly exempt from traditional exegesis, any analysis of such “phenomena” should be taken with the caveat that they’re stubbornly resistant to rational discussion. Nevertheless, before there was a “phenomenon” there was a television show, and that show is still being produced: still auditioned for by tens of thousands, edited to achieve certain effects, and watched by millions. Although not terribly interesting in and of itself, this show is part of the aforementioned wave of reality TV, a genre that has grown more amorphous as it’s grown more pervasive, until it encompasses everything from the hidden-camera shenanigans of Jamie Kennedy and Tom Green, the No Exit quarantines of Survivor and Big Brother, the in situ celebritas emplacements of The Osbournes and Newlyweds, and the game-show-by-any-other-name varietals of The Apprentice, Project Runway, and, of course, American Idol. As Mark Andrejevic points out in his comprehensive and insightful study, RealityTV: The Work of Being Watched, such shows “allow the audience to participate by proxy,” from which the genre derives a quasi-governmental legitimacy: just as politicians are drawn from the people they are said to represent, so too were the players in the first generation of reality TV culled from the general populace, and, on the most “democratic” of these shows—American Idol, the first season of Big Brother—could also be removed by audience voting. If, as they say, art holds up a mirror to life, then what could be more real than a one-way glass behind which a camera records a set of players who look remarkably like the audience at home?

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