Wednesday, January 21, 2009

American Idol has been and still is a hugely successful show. I actually enjoy watching it, although I’m not sure I’ve ever voted. Some of the great moments come when they discover someone who is genuinely great – someone who has a stellar voice, and/or amazing performance ability. Other great moments (which tend to be the ones that I prefer) involve the earlier stages of the auditions – where you find the plucky would-be artists whose understanding of their own musical skill is somewhat out of touch with reality. While I don’t like the cruelty the process sometimes involves, there is something strangely compulsive about those people getting up there and murdering unaccompanied a small section of a famous song.

What I’ve been thinking about more and more though, is the structure of the program. Firstly, it’s generally accepted that reality TV is “cheap” TV to make. You have a basic structure, people volunteer to ‘star’ on the show, and you then build the entire program simply by filming and editing what happens. No major plot writing is required, no characters have to be developed, and the conclusion supplies itself at the appropriate time. The voyeuristic element in the public psyche seems to mean that people will watch anything that involves people filmed in a half candid manner, even if they are aware of the filming and the situation has been elegantly contrived. Large audiences mean advertisers will shell out big money to advertise during the program, so it’s not only cheap at the front end, it’s a money-spinner at the back end.

So, reality TV costs minimal amounts to make, the characters volunteer to be the ‘stars’ practically for free, people will watch nearly anything that results in huge numbers, and advertisers will bankroll the whole exercise, giving a huge profit to a very basic idea. Despite the fact that the whole charade is completely based on mindless lowest-common-denominator entertainment, it makes large amounts of commercial sense. So far, so good.

Where American Idol and other reality TV shows which aim to find musical talent really excel is that they have taken this idea of dressing up nothing as something, and then converting it directly in to money, and stumbled in to a way to turn it in to far more than a simple “advertising revenue in return for viewing figures” equation. American Idol is the ultimate stacked deck, and the concept is utterly brilliant.

The Contestants

Firstly, you have a series of contestants who volunteer to enter. There is undoubtedly some marketing cost involved in attracting their attention, but by and large, these people come to the show of their own accord.

Secondly, contestants sign contracts as a condition of their participation in the show. It makes sense, as if money is flying about later on, the rules need to be set down early. The question is, what are the rules? These contracts cover how any earnings will be split up in the future, should they achieve success via the show. In short, they are locked in to a punitive contract situation should they become successful. This seems reasonable at the start – after all – what do they have to lose when they have yet to achieve any success? It may not look like such a great deal down the line, when millions of dollars of income generated by the winner is being allocated on a basis of a contract they signed when they thought they were splitting up zero.

The Judges

The famous judges. They add a certain glamour, a certain element of fame and success to proceedings. They banter among each other, offer sage wisdom about how brilliant/dire a performance was, and then occasionally pick songs for the contestants at later stages of the competition. While they can be highly entertaining, their contribution is mainly to keep the comedy/interest level up on the TV program, provide some pseudo-controversy and disguise what the "competition" really is, which is down to only one group of people…

The Audience

The audience (meaning the TV-watching audience) is where the cynical and perfectly aligned commercial genius of American Idol really resides.

Firstly, the public willingly watch this program and its close relations – in huge numbers, week after week. The numbers are important – so is the fact that people watch it as a habit.

Secondly, they are prepared to vote. More importantly, they are prepared to vote when it costs them to do so. This is the first part of the brilliance – the show is paid for twice! It’s already paid for by the advertisers (whose adverts the public watch, therefore subsidizing the program the first time) – and then the audience vote for their favourite artists, and pay for the program again...

So is that it? I thought so, until I started to think about it.

Then I realized that the votes from the public aren’t just useful because they raise cash. They are useful because they are an accurate representation of how the public feels about particular musical acts.

Setting aside the financial income from voting, not only are the voting patterns indicative of how the public feels – it costs money to cast a vote. This means not only are the voting results indicative of public preference, but the results come from a large group of qualified customers. People that are prepared to spend a little bit of money voting for an act, are highly likely to be prepared to spend a little bit of money on purchasing the musical output of the act. The results of the votes accurately indicate the preferences of people who are likely to buy the end-product.

Finally, the audience watches it as a habit. This means that if the program runs for 2 or 3 months, the audience has watched what is effectively a rolling advert for a quarter of a year, and an advert in which they have become emotionally invested in the end-product before it is even available.

It is stunningly brilliant. You have a program where the people supplying the content (who should be ‘employees’, not ‘contestants’) come free of charge. You have such a large sample of contestants, you are virtually guaranteed to find a very competent singer and performer. You have very low costs to make the program, offset with a steady and lucrative stream of advertising. You have an audience who will watch habitually, will increase your revenue by voluntarily paying to vote the most generically commercially viable act to the top spot (and pay for the voting privileges to do so), in doing so qualifying themselves as very likely purchasers of the end product, and who will watch and willingly pay to become personally invested in the creation of the act/product from start to finish, all the time watching a continuous advert for the eventual winner.

Calling it a "stacked deck" does it a gross disservice - it is nothing short of fiendishly brilliant.


John Braine said...

Great stuff Dave! Very insightful. I've always thought it was genius the way they rope you in for the freak show at the start and before you know it, it's sunday morning hangover tv and you're holding back the tears because your favourite is singing their farewell song. Apparently.

But never thought about the ready made audience part of it.

rudegary said...

Deadly analysis Dave. If only the contestants would realize they are employees and the voters would realize that they are paying for the show twice so the whole house of cards would come crashing down. No fucking chance unfortunately.