Audience appetite for genre to be put to test
America’s got talent, but is that enough to sustain another round of song and dance competition shows?The audience appetite for TV’s performer-judge-vote formula will be put to the test this year, as several high-profile formats are launched within an already crowded playing field (led, of course, by the newly rehabbed “American Idol”). Beyond the debut last week of Paula Abdul’s CBS show “Live to Dance,” NBC continues to prep the U.S. take on “The Voice of Holland” for late spring, while Fox and Simon Cowell are the heavyweights in the corner, readying the long-awaited “X Factor” for fall. Then there are cable entries like Oxygen’s “The Glee Project,” in which performers compete for a guest spot on the hit Fox series. On sister cabler Bravo, former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi has teamed with Jewel to front the singer-songwriter competish “Going Platinum.” And if that’s not enough, Investigation Discovery is developing a talent competition set inside a prison, while morning news shows and syndie afternoon strips continue to employ talent-hunts as sweeps gimmicks. All of these new shows have to compete against established players like “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Next Best Dance Crew” and, of course, “Idol.” “It’s definitely a crowded marketplace,” says Reveille’s Howard T. Owens. “But every time you think you might be at saturation point, something else breaks through.” That’s been true with recent entries such as Reveille’s “Live to Dance,” which opened respectably for CBS last week. “Dance” bowed with 10 million viewers; also, NBC’s holiday-timed a cappella competish “The Sing-Off” turned into a surprise December hit for the Peacock. “The competition space and talent space seems to have stouter legs than other genres,” says one network reality exec. “At the very least, when they’re made well, and there’s enough entertainment in there to grab people, viewers do check it out.” Reality execs and producers get a bit defensive when asked whether the genre has become too derivative — after all, scripted series regularly inspire an army of clones. “Lost” led to a multitude of (lesser) copycats, they note, while the networks continue to develop every twist imaginable on the cop drama. It’s just in TV’s nature to chase what’s working, and the continued dominance of an even weakened “Idol” is enough to keep execs trying. “The well-mined genres and subgenres are well-mined for a reason,” says one exec. “In the case of talent competitions, (it’s) the rags-to-riches stories people will appreciate over and over again.” The formula is successful enough that Fox is now looking to keep at least one of its three major talent competitions in the mix year-round. In Fox’s perfect scenario, “Idol” dominates winter and spring; “So You Think You Can Dance” keeps the lights on in the summer; and “The X Factor” wallops the competish in the fall. “Fox has now potentially tied up four out of the four quarters with these shows,” says one reality producer. “They basically could grab wall-to-wall control. There’s a fear of impending monopoly control by Fox.” Network insiders believe that’s one reason NBC is rushing “The Voice” to air this spring. It’s the Peacock’s last chance to grab some of that in-season talent competition mojo before “The X Factor” comes to town. NBC likes to point out that “The Voice” has already beaten “X Factor” in Holland. And if the Peacock show (from Mark Burnett and John de Mol) manages to steal a bit of “X Factor’s” thunder in the U.S., (both shows contain a heavy mentoring component), then NBC could perhaps succeed, in at least gaining a foothold. There’s even a question of how much great undiscovered talent is truly out there to spread around these shows. One network exec notes that shows like “Idol,” “The Voice” and “X Factor” frequently find themselves chasing after the same potential contestants and having to pitch why their show would be the better opportunity. “Real talent is hard to find,” says one exec. However, even if viewers start to tune out of the talent competition space by fall, no one’s willing to bet against “The X Factor.” The show’s potent weapon, Simon Cowell, is still too huge of a draw. “Simon is one of, if not the, biggest stars in TV,” says one producer. “If anyone can get people revved up, it’s him. I feel like he’s got a good shot. It will definitely be interesting to see how America responds to him changing shows. And, in the near term, with how ‘Idol’ does without him.” As “American Idol” returns for its highly publicized 10th season this month, all eyes initially will be on new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. But the big question isn’t whether the two have chemistry (perhaps) or if they’ve been punctual to the set (they have). It’s whether viewers will flock back to the talent contest, now in its 10th year. “Idol” ended last year with a 10% ratings dip — a respectable amount of erosion, given the show’s age and the high ratings base it’s falling from. (“Idol” would still be a hit if half of its audience disappeared.) But that dip came with superstar Cowell still in the mix, and with the patina of past winners still in the zeitgeist. This year, Cowell is gone — and last year’s winner, Lee DeWyze, was just the latest in a string of lackluster victors. If the show’s once spot-on talent-sniffing reputation takes another blow, viewers might not stick around after sampling the new team. Rivals, sensing blood in the water, are quick to point to a surprising lack of buzz this close to launch, despite the judge switcheroo (or perhaps because the addition of Tyler and Lopez is such old news at this point). “I predict that it starts with a premiere 10% off vs. last year,” says one competitor. “And it ends lower.” Others, however, believe the show will start out with a nice bump, thanks to viewers returning to check out all the changes. But in the long run, most agree “Idol” will live or die on the promise of finding another star, a la Carrie Underwood. If all goes well, Fox should be happy if “Idol” only bleeds another 10% this year. Meanwhile, for all the changes afoot, “Idol” will still be “Idol.” The changing judges are a big difference, but everything else is just tweaks — including music industry vet and “Idol” mentor Jimmy Iovine, who made a splash at the “Idol” judges announcement last year, but whose role on the show is still being ironed out. Iovine will have an important presence, sources say, but it won’t be Simon-sized. Also, talk of musicvideo components or a major set overhaul are untrue, folks close to the show say. Additionally, don’t expect to see a “Real World” style chronicle of the “Idol” contestants living together in a house; although that element was brought up this year, it won’t play a major role on the show. And producers still haven’t decided for sure whether to allow contestants onto social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. “The only major change to that show is the disappearance of its star,” one rival says. “But they’ve got producers who know what they’re doing, and everyone will probably check it out. My prediction is it will be a solid, if not higher, start than the last ‘Idol.’ But if they haven’t got the goods or the talent or make a new star, then that will be a problem for them.”
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