A history of reality television (part four): Show me your talents - VIDEOS

by Richard Keller, posted Jul 9th 2008 6:00PM

The Big Four of American Idol -- Simon, Ryan, Randy and PaulaTelevision and the talent show have been partners since the very first days of the industry. Taking the best (and sometimes worst) performers and putting them in front of the camera, these shows introduced viewers to personalities that either faded into the background or became household names. Usually, these personalities had a talent that would entertain the public -- singing, dancing, telling jokes -- that they would use once they left the talent show stage to increase their fame.

It continued in this fashion throughout the decades. Until, of course, the 21st Century and the Reality Revolution. While standard, yet bigger and bolder, talent shows continued, network programmers began to realize that there were more talented people than just performers. There were models, clothing designers, chefs, hair stylists, and businesspeople out there ready to show their stuff and make it big. So, they turned some of their attention away from singers and dancers and focused on the others. The result? A schedule full of top models, top chefs, top businesspeople, and top inventors.

In other words, the talent show had returned to television in a big way.

The earliest talent shows on television were Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. While Talent Scouts was the higher rated show of the two, the Original Amateur Hour was more in the format of present-day programs like American Idol or America's Got Talent. After showcasing a number of performers, Mack would ask viewers to call a phone number and judge who the winner of that week's show was. The winner would then return to the show again, sometimes for several weeks in a row. This format would continue to be popular and allow the show to last much longer than Talent Scouts -- it would continue on the air until the very beginning of the 1970s.

By 1976 game show producer Chuck Barris had decided to take the concept of the talent show and turn it upside-down with The Gong Show. Hosted by Barris, the show featured performers -- sometimes good, sometimes dreadful -- who would be presented to a panel of three celebrity judges. If the performer was able to get through their act without getting gonged, they would receive a score from 0 to 10, with the maximum total being 30 points. If the player was gonged, well, they would be disqualified from continuing. The winner would be the performer who had the most points.

The quirkiness of the show, the performers, and the host himself, pulled in the viewers, although not as many as NBC -- where the show was airing in the daytime -- wanted. Citing low ratings and the risque nature of some of the acts on the show, the network canceled The Gong Show in 1978. However, the program remained in a night-time syndicated format until the beginning of the 1980s. And, despite being a sort of parody on the talent show genre, The Gong Show did introduce viewers to a number of performers that would become stars later. These include Annie's Andrea McArdle, singer Cheryl Lynn, Paul Reubens, RuPaul, and impressionist (and Police Academy star) Michael Winslow.

By the 1980s the talent show became to take the form of the big showcase, big contract format that we see today in many programs. This was due to the premiere of the syndicated Star Search in 1983. Hosted by The Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon, Star Search varied the talent show concept by splitting the talent into categories: comedy, vocalist (male and female), young performer, and spokesmodel. Each category had two contestants that would face off against each other. After their performances a panel of five judges would rate the contestants with one to five stars. The winner would then compete against another challenger.

The competitors who received the highest point totals would then move on to the Semi-Finals and then the Finals, where the winner would be determined by an audience vote. Winners would receive a cash prize and, with the spokesmodel category, receive a contract with a well-known modeling agency. Unlike American Idol, the male and female vocalists would not be guaranteed a recording contract. Many of those who performed on the Star Search stage during its 12 years of syndication went on to bigger and better things, whether they won or not. For instance, the vocal competition featured future well-known personalities like Alanis Morissette, Christina Aguilera, and LeAnn Rimes. The comedy competition featured such talent as Sinbad, Rosie O'Donnell, Bill Engvall, Jenny Jones, and Kevin James.

After Star Search named its last winners in 1995 the talent show took a break from television. When it returned in the early 21st Century, it did so slightly stripped down. In other words, rather than focusing on a variety of performers, the newest talent shows focused on just one performance type. For vocal performances, the show to focus on this was none other than American Idol.

Part of the Idol franchise that began in the UK in 2001, American Idol took a little bit of this and a little bit of that from television talent shows of previous eras. It featured a panel of three judges (who would become more famous and infamous than the performers they were judging) who would critique the performances of the contestants. However, no points were ever rewarded by them. Instead, like in the Original Amateur Hour, viewers were asked to call a phone number in order to vote for their favorite performers. The performer with the least amount of votes would leave the show.

Like Survivor, American Idol became a huge hit for FOX during the summer of 2002. Actually, that's an understatement; American Idol became a HUGE hit. An estimated fifty million people tuned in to the season one finale to see if Kelly Clarkson or Justin Guarini would become the first American Idol. Judges Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, and host Ryan Seacrest, became huge stars (the other host, Brian Dunkleman, sort of faded into the sunset), while the star of former '80s pop star Paula Abdul rose once again.

After its initial summer run, American Idol moved into the January-May schedule that is seen today. And, while the first season selection of performers from various cities wasn't hyped at all, the second series tryouts were totally the opposite. Tens of thousands potential performers lined up for a chance to go to Hollywood. In many cases, the shows that highlighted these tryouts were even more popular than the actual talent competition itself. This formula of filming the tryouts would be used on other talent programs to proceed American Idol.

While Idol was pulling in the viewers with previously unknown singing talent, another network program was pulling in unknown modeling talent for a chance of fame an fortune. Premiering on UPN in 2003, America's Next Top Model became one of the first programs to combine the concepts surrounding talent competitions with those found on reality game operas like Survivor or Big Brother.

In Top Model a number of potential candidates are selected to live together and take part in a series of challenges related to the fashion world. A panel of judges, led by model Tyra Banks, critiques them on their challenges and, ultimately, determines who stays and who remains. After a whirlwind trip to an international city known for fashion, a winner is chosen. Along the way viewers get to see cat-fights, meltdowns and, on more than one occasion, someone you wouldn't expect making it to the big time.

Unlike other talent competitions, Top Model actually provides an education about the world of modeling. Each week, the remaining contestants learn a new aspect about modeling that is particular to that week's challenge. Sometimes it's modeling-related, such as learning proper posture and the actual way to walk down a runway. Other times they work on improvisational acting in order to properly perform during photo and film shoots. Whether or not the contestants are able to grasp the concepts of the lessons determines, in many cases, who stays or who remains on the program.

As the models were duking it out over at UPN, NBC was preparing for a battle to find the Last Comic Standing. Another talent-game opera mix like Top Model, Comic went across the country in search for a pool of talented and not so talented comedians. The winner would go on to fame in fortune on the stand-up circuit and beyond. Along the way, the selected comedians would all be put into one house (sound familiar) where viewers would see their interactions. They would also be involved in weekly comedy challenges. The winner of those challenges would receive immunity from elimination during that week's performance (sound familiar again?).

Last Comic Standing has had its share of problems over the years. During the second season, two of the celebrity judges -- Drew Carey and Brett Butler -- walked away from the judges table during the selection of the final contestants when their choices did not make it. There were also allegations that the producers planted talent into the comedian pool to make the show more entertaining. Even the show's original host, Jay Mohr, expressed concerns about the show and the way the talent was selected. By the fall of 2004, the show was canceled by NBC during mid-run (with the remaining episodes airing on Comedy Central); however, it was resurrected with a new host in 2006 and remains on the air at this time.

And so the performance-based talent show/game opera hybrid continued in various forms, including shows like Nashville Star, a remake of Star Search, the Simon Cowell-produced America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and Can You Be a Porn Star? Even known celebrities got into the talent show game. On the dancing side they have participated in ABC's Dancing With the Stars since 2005. On the singing front non-singing stars got together with professionals for the FOX show Celebrity Duets.

It wasn't until 2004 that talent programs shifted away from performance and focused more on skill. This was courtesy of NBC's The Apprentice. Hosted by Donald Trump, Apprentice took 16 businesspeople to win a one-year contract to run one of the billionaire's companies. As was now the norm in reality programming, the contestants would be split into two "companies" that would compete in a series of business projects. The winning team would be rewarded, while the losing team would be called to the "Board Room" where Mr. Trump would make the final decision on who was fired. There was also a Big Brother element to the program as the contestants would live together in one of Trump's properties. However, while there were some conflicts while at the residence, most of the interactions took place during the actual projects.

The introduction of Apprentice to the primetime schedule brought a slew of skill-based talent shows into the fray. For example, ESPN's Dream Job offered its winner a chance to be on-air talent. UK import Hell's Kitchen introduced us to the acerbic Gordon Ramsay as he chose a chef to head one of his restaurants. Bravo's Project Runway focused on a group of fashion designers who competing for a chance at the big time. The Next Food Network Star gave chefs a chance to win a show on the food-based network.

As you can see, the talent show is alive and well on television today. It has even morphed into shows focusing on one performance or business skill. Taking positions on the schedule throughout the year, talent shows have eclipsed game operas in the amount of material currently out there. As the Reality Revolution continues on its merry way, the talent show may be the last type of show standing when everything clears. That's because everyone likes to see the little guy or girl win.


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What happened to the reality free feed?

July 09 2008 at 6:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Can I just ask how "A History of Reality Television" gets tagged as 'reality free'? I thought the whole point of the 'free' tag was to keep this dreck from those of us who have no interest in reality television?

July 09 2008 at 6:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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