Format works on small screen, but can winners bring success to vet groups?

Ever since the arrival of “Pop Idol” in the U.K. and “American Idol” Stateside, television has been cranking out pop stars by the dozen as young unknowns have put themselves through the demands of judges and producers.

For them, the holy grail of a record deal and a chance to tour the world has been all upside.

Now enter INXS and TLC, two long-established acts that are providing a variation on the format. The Aussie rockers and the best-selling R&B trio are shopping for replacement singers via the small screen. So far, it’s been smooth, with the catalogue of INXS getting a hefty boost from the exposure. But in the long run, the TV gambit is risky: Make a bad choice for a singer, and the groups could self-destruct.

“It’s interesting — you don’t move forward unless you go on the chopping block, and we are on the block,” says INXS saxophonist Kirk Pengilly, who started toying with the idea of filming the hunt for a new lead singer back in 1998. “This is a risk. But we had to come up with something that had not been done before, and I think we have.”

The outcome affects lofty plans for the next few years. In the late 1980s, INXS was as popular as U2, and lead singer Mick Hutchence was often compared with Mick Jagger. The CBS series aired this summer, while TLC was drawing about 2 million people to each of their UPN shows.

INXS’ attempt to spring from small screen to SoundScan charts to the stage unfolds as recent “American Idol” finalists Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice finish their solo debuts, “AI” dropout Mario Vasquez preps his first album for J Records and TLC starts to incorporate its new singer and see if there’s a public for its music.

Clearly, with four seasons of “AI” and a couple of “Nashville Stars,” the land of TV-created pop stars is looking mighty crowded. But the INXS team believes attitude, experience and good business sense makes their new edition viable.

David Edwards, INXS’ manager since 1990, is a bit fearless, seeing the CBS show as having a two-pronged benefit. “Lead singers make bands attractive, and this process allows the public to connect with a lead singer,” he says.

INXS, which has worked with Terence Trent D’Arby and Jon Stevens of Noiseworks since the 1997 death of Michael Hutchence, will name its new lead singer Sept. 20 and head straight to the studio, where they’ll have six weeks to finish their album. Sony BMG’s Epic Records has penciled in a Dec. 13 release date for the disc, which the band has been working on since the show began.

In addition, the newly minted Burnett Records — distributed by Epic — will issue a compilation of perfs from the show on the day of the finale. Mark Burnett Prods., which produces the show, is involved financially in the tour and the record, and will be working to bridge the TV show to both, possibly through another show.

In early 2006, INXS plans to tour the world, though even the band members don’t agree on whether to start in their home of Sydney or return there after the bugs are worked out. A concert promoter has not been inked yet.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what size venues the new INXS will play in. At their height in the early 1990s, they performed at London’s Wembley Stadium. Between 1987 (the year of the 10-million seller “Kick”) and the death of lead singer Hutchence 10 years later, they were an arena band.

“It’s a big opportunity to do something different,” Edwards says, “but we have no idea what that is. I’d love to say we’re playing Shea Stadium, but when I look at people like Eminem not doing too well, I know there’s a lot to consider.”

More reason for concern are the number of reunion shows that have struggled over the last few years — never mind a few of rock’s dark chapters that included Van Halen with Gary Cherrone, Black Sabbath with Dave Donato and Fleetwood Mac with Bekka Bramlett. Even Queen, with Paul Rodgers taking over for the late Freddie Mercury, has limited its U.S. tour to two dates, perhaps to keep demand high. That said, Motley Crue and the Rolling Stones are packing houses.

Edwards is quick to note that the INXS catalog has not been heard in quite some time, but is holding up well. Since the TV show began July 11, sales of the Rhino-Atlantic compilation “Best of INXS” have nearly quadrupled, and now average more than 7,000 per week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Similarly, the show has seen ratings grow as the number of contestants has been reduced and CBS has sent a Monday show to VH1. The Tuesday “Rock Star” is CBS’ top ratings earner, recently pulling in 6.5 million viewers.

Performances seen on the TV series have been available as downloads on msn.com, one of the show’s promo partners. (Verizon, Levi’s, Honda and Gibson Guitars are among the others). On Aug. 23, eight of MSN Music’s top-selling downloads were from the skein.

Edwards, Tim and his brother Jon, sax man Pengilly and even Burnett’s business partner Conrad Riggs like to use the word “organic” in talking about every aspect of the show, whether its sponsor tie-ins or the recording process. “It’s how we’ve always worked,” says drummer Jon Farriss. “It has been awhile since we’ve put together a show, but things tend to gel naturally with us.”

The contestants have been schooled in songwriting and given interviews, along with some celebrity perks, such as a walk on the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere — and the mansion they share. The INXS guys say they watch the “rockers” behavior as much as they listen to them sing; the new singer will get a full share financially in everything INXS does in the next year or so.

The band will get its first chance to play with its new lead singer at the show’s finale –a trial-by-fire debut for the reformulated INXS.

“This is a reinvention (of INXS),” says guitarist Tim Farriss. “But that’s fine. I feel we reinvented ourselves on every album.

“We don’t have an Olympic gold medal-winning guitarist. We have always tried to make music that sounds right to us. We’re about being a cohesive force, and we have to make (the singer) understand that.”

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