back to top

A Three-Step Plan To Save Our Reality Singing Shows

They've been our national pastime for a decade, but the singing contests are dying — and The X Factor finale only drove the point home. Here's how they can be saved.

Posted on

Last night The X Factor's second season ended, more with a whimper than a bang. When the show's U.S. launch was announced three years ago, it was one of the most hyped beginnings in television history. It was absolutely unprecedented for the star of the number one show on TV to leave to start up a rival show. American Idol, it seemed, was the past; Simon Cowell's The X Factor was the future.

Two seasons later, and the airwaves for singing contests have the look of a carpet-bombed no man's land. Both Idol and X Factor have struggled in the ratings, while rival NBC's The Voice has happily added to the overkill, staging not one but two seasons this year. A decade ago, American Idol seasons dominated the zeitgeist; their stars were ubiquitous on magazine covers and the airwaves. The Idol finale was briefly neck and neck with the Oscars second only to the Superbowl in national viewing numbers and the singing contest became our national entertainment. But today, it's very possible to be completely unaware that an Idol, X Factor, or Voice finale is in progress. And with ratings on the decline, that problem is only going to get worse.

I love The X Factor. Of the current TV singing competitions, it is by far my favorite. It is big, shameless, full-throated, spectacle fun. For my money, this year's judges' panel with the additions of the spark plug Demi Lovato and the endlessly fascinating Britney Spears, to the razor-sharp Cowell and L.A. Reid duo, created the best judiciary yet assembled in a singing contest.

But if ratings mean anything, the show has not connected with a larger public. And it's not just X Factor; across the board, the singing contests are looking desperate and out of touch with today's zeitgeist.

But they are worth saving! Singing contests, a battle between young dreamers facing off in a gladiatorial showdown of song, are the most fun and emotionally wrenching form of gamesmanship there is. It is warfare without blood and with much better hair. There is no reason they should disappear from the airwaves — but the world has changed. To live on, singing contests will have to change with them.

I have a plan to save them.

Step One: Downsize

Idol premiered on the U.S. airwaves just months after 9/11. Following the dissonance of the grunge era and the ethereal '90s techno wave, Americans were ready for something big and bombastic, a new national spectacle that drew the country together served with extra helpings of schmaltz.

Eleven years later, it's a different world. With the bubble burst, the national mood is insular and limited. But rather than evolve with the changing times, the singing genre has doubled down on bombast. The battle between the shows offer nothing but one's upmanship in one direction: bigger name judges! Bigger guest performers! Longer shows! Special guest mentors! Bigger prizes! Huger auditions! The problem is, they are fighting one another for ground that can no longer sustain life. America is shying away from giant TV spectacles all together. Everywhere from Dancing with the Stars to America's Got Talent, ratings are down and the appetite for these goliaths is fading.

When you are in a hole, you should stop digging, but these shows seem hell-bent on making their way to China. There is a precedent, however, for instituting a more leisurely pace keeping the momentum alive. In its first few seasons, Survivor dominated the airwaves as Idol once did. That moment passed, and the show transitioned out of being the center of the universe but into just a competition show. Survivor's 26th season hits the airwaves next month and shows every sign of being able to continue forever.

But how to downsize? First of all, the amount of airtime these shows consume is suffocating. Two-hour weekly performance shows plus hour-long result shows is an enormous commitment to ask of an audience. And all that extra time hasn't exactly been used to tighten the narrative. The extra space is largely filled up with a parade of guest performers, crazed double-theme weeks, and marketing tie-in video packages showing the contestants out at movie premieres. The result does not heighten the excitement but drains every ounce of drama from the competition with all the filler. Like an aspiring auteur director who needs to be reined in to find the story he's trying to tell, the contests need less space to refocus on what's important. Give them an hour a week — extra-wide specials only for the premiere and the finale — and challenge them to tell their story in that amount of time. Plenty of shows on the air that manage to do just that.

Step Two: Become a Reality Show

The competition genre is dying, but across the cable airwaves, reality thrives. With their backstories and peeks behind the scenes, the singing contests have always had a few toes in reality while remaining theatrical variety shows. But with their boats flooded, it's time to abandon ship and go all in on reality.

Cable has again pioneered this approach. Shows like Top Chef and Project Runway manage to be competitions while appearing closer in look and feel to The Real World than Dancing with the Stars. In the end, it's a matter of orientation. A handful of young singers clawing their way to pop stardom and searching for the songs that can get them there is still enormously enthralling drama. But showing that journey from the perspective of the singers — rather from the perspective of the live studio audience — will give those stories an intimacy and power that has lately gotten lost under the goliath.

You don't need to get rid of the live stage spectacle; just don't make it the whole show. Putting more into the buildup — and not just in the staged, contrived way the shows currently show the "process" — will give those moments more impact when the terrified young stars step forth onto the big stage.

Interestingly, pure reality outside of competitions has never been given much of a shot on the big networks. From The Biggest Loser to The Bachelor to Temptation Island, the major networks have only been comfortable with reality heavily framed by a game-show format. Ultimately, they almost all feel more game show than reality. That creates a gap on the minimalist end of the spectrum that is ripe for the singing contests to fill.

Step Three: Death to Democracy

Idol's great innovation was to put the decision-making power of a major TV show in the hands of its audience. The larger idea behind that, however, was to create a virtuous circle of pop machinery in which the audience would vote for the singers they most wanted to hear and thus, be most likely to buy the albums by the singers they have voted for.

A decade and a half and one music industry collapse later, that ship clearly has sailed. Part of the problem is that Idol is a victim of its own success as a TV show. More people watch these shows than the relatively limited demographics who still buy music in this day and age. Simply put, the people who watch the contests now see them as television shows unto themselves, not audition processes for their favorite new pop performer.

Season after season, the audiences have abused their democratic rights, turning the competitions into popularity contests as they cast ballots for the cutest boy or best sob story. Having a good backstory is nice, but a glance at the pop charts shows it is certainly not prerequiste for selling a single. At every stage of the shows, when the judges make decisions, they tend to be more or less decent ones. At every stage on every show, the public's choices tend to be more or less terrible.

One has to feel particularly bad for X Factor and the indignities it has suffered at the hand of its audience. No show could have done more to promote younger acts, more ethnically diverse acts in more contemporary styles than this season of XF. But in the end, the vote was in the public's hand, and who do they choose? The 37-year-old country singer and the 13-year-old cherub reared to belt out showtunes.

It's time to declare a dicatorship in the singing contests. Suspend civil liberties and put the decisions back in the hands of the experts. The audiences will grumble for a bit, but give the masses a good TV show and in the end they'll thank you for taking away their rights.

Singing contests can be saved and can be part of our national fabric forever. But not unless they change dramatically and soon, before America tunes them out altogether.