Are We Wrong to Condemn TV Music Talent Shows?

Okay, we need to talk about music-based TV talents shows. Annual extravaganzas such as X Factor get a bad rap from established musicians and disgruntled viewers alike, and maybe there is some justification, but they return year after year like zombies that just won’t die. That indicates that a huge portion of the population still find them essential viewing.

The Voice brought a new concept that was meant to be the antidote to the X Factor, with singers judged purely on the quality of their voices rather than image, age or ability to command a stage. Yet, the show was soon switched to ITV and rotated in the same Saturday night slot as the X Factor where it is presumably enjoyed by an almost identical audience.

So, after years of pouring scorn on these shows, is it not just time to accept them for what they are: Saturday night family entertainment. If we convince ourselves these shows represent the music industry as a whole, it rightly causes us despair; but let’s face it, we can still enjoy a wealth of great music despite these brash spectacles grabbing all the limelight.

Guilty pleasures

We know a lot of the drama is staged; we know there will be tears, sob stories and tantrums along the way, but we also know that, for some people, these shows are a great form of escapism. They are great to watch with the family and they can spark talking points. And let’s face it, for many, they are simply a guilty pleasure.

And that brings us to the godmother of all these shows: Eurovision. Of all the music talent shows on TV, this international extravaganza of manufactured pop is the one that always gets a pass. No one looks at Eurovision as a representation of the music business as a whole, despite the fact that top songwriters and producers from all over the continent and beyond are drafted in every year to try to find the winning formula. Instead, we head off to our Eurovision parties in full knowledge of the kitsch that awaits us.

And, for bookmakers, these shows rank amongst the biggest novelty betting events of the years. Websites such as Oddschecker, known for hosting sports odds and bonuses, now give annual betting tips and prices from bookmakers like William Hill for all the top talent and reality shows. Just like the Grand National, many people who would normally bet on the horses may have a punt on who will win Eurovision in 2019.

No pretence of credibility

There are similarities with these shows and the world of mainstream wrestling which is also hugely popular, especially in the United States, but by no means represent the best that professional sport has to offer. Wrestling is choreographed, storylines are contrived and the outcome is often predetermined, but everyone knows what they are buying into - and the trade-off is great entertainment. Once you get over the craving for credibility, these shows reveal themselves to be exactly what they are.

Even if you loathe the X Factor, would you really want to watch an alternative show that tried to pit credible indie artists against each other? Would you want to see their hopes and dreams played out weekly, their fate in the hands of some judging panel? Channel Four tried it with UnsignedAct back in 2007 and it was generally awful, despite the best efforts of Jo Whiley, Alex James and Lauren Laverne to bring some credibility to proceedings.

Honest entertainment

Soon, it will be nearly 20 years since Pop Idol (along with Simon Cowell) first came to our screens. Maybe it is time to admit these shows are not the symptom of everything wrong with modern society. Trashy TV talent shows have always been there and there will always be a demand for them.

And the music business has always treated artists as products on a conveyor belt who have a limited shelf life. There are very few musicians in mainstream pop music history who have ever been afforded full creative freedom after signing to a major label.

In that respect, shows like the X Factor expose the mechanisms of the entertainment world with complete honesty. And that is one of the reasons why millions still tune in. Viewers know many of the artists will be churned up and spat out the other end, but the process still fascinates.