Margareta Svensson Riggs
American Idol, The Voice, X-Factor, America's Got Talent etc.
Updated: Mar 26
What are shows like Idol, The Voice, X-Factor and Got Talent?
They are TV-shows! That’s what they are. TV-shows, nothing more, nothing less. TV-shows within the genre Unscripted television. They are not star makers. They are not celebrity makers even if it can feel that way for the talent while they are on the show. When the show is over, however, the media attention goes away.
I have been on two TV-shows within the unscripted television genre. One drama show, not a competition, and one talent show as an expert judge. I have also trained singers who got on the Greek X-Factor, the Filipino The Voice, Sweden's Got Talent and American Idol. The hype and the pressure is enormous especially for the shows that have partially live components. But after the season is over, though overwhelming experiences, it's much like a balloon that burst.
What is the objective for these shows then?
The objective for these shows - and all shows, and most everything - is to make money.
How do they make money? By discovering the next super-star?
No, not at all. As for all shows on television, they make money by selling commercial spots. In the US, in every hour of television, there is about 16 minutes of commercials. If it's a 2-hour show, there are somewhere around 32 minutes of commercials, and if every 30-second commercial spot sells for about $200,000, that means that the episode made $12,800,000, while it cost roughly $2 million to produce. These numbers vary depending on show and location in the world - and it changes year to year - but it's easy to understand the forces at hand, and they are not the unfamiliar people performing who make less than $2,000 per episode.
Why would a company buy time to have their commercials run on a show?
Because the show can show that they have good ratings, which is the same as a lot of viewers in a specific demographic that would be that company’s potential customers.
And how does the show get good ratings?
There is of course a lot that goes into that, but is it because of the unknown talent on the show? No. It never is. The talent thinks it is, at least they think that they might be the exception.
But the audience watch because they feel connected somehow, they are moved in one way or another. It could be the element of competition, or a celebrity judge that they like, or the touching story of someone striving on in the face of adversity - in combination with the familiarity of big songs from the past. Regardless of the reason, it is baked into the format of the show. That is why there is an “Idol” franchise in 70 countries, a version of a domestic “Got Talent” and so on. These formats work. They attract audiences. And the stars of these shows are always the judges of course.
But, for the unfamiliar talent on the show that can fill the shoes of having a moving story, connect with the audience, and do great performances – will they now super stars?
No. The show does not extend outside its own existence. The show does not care what happens after the show. The show has only one goal - to make money - primarily by creating a new great season, filling the roles of unfamiliar people with new unfamiliar people, create more viewers and in turn more revenue. Having said that, if a show format producer can make money off of a contestant after the show is over, they will. This is secured through contracts signed when entering the show. Depending on show and country, there are further possibilities - for both parties - if a show format producer signs a management deal with a contestant, and if record deals are made. But there are not many Kelly Clarksons and Carry Underwoods. It feel more like going into a Las Vegas casino and expecting to win the jackpot. When the season is over for a show, the main cast - the judges - and the attention goes to the next season, and the show's goal - to create new great and familiar-according-to-the-format entertainment, in order to make money by providing a shopping window for the companies that pay to have their products shown on the show.
It is however also a shopping window for the talent on the show, if they understand that they have to have a ready-to-sell product right after. And even then, the step is not a given. Because the show’s objective is met more easily if everyone on the show looks and sounds great – whatever that means. Apart from the obvious hype, glitz and glam on and off the show including media coverage, it means that the vocals are tuned for instance. You don’t hear anyone sing off pitch, unless the show has a reason for wanting someone to be off pitch. It means that the audience is going wild cheering – because they are told to throughout the taping over and over. Everything is optimal – and once the talent is off that giant machine of the show – a similar machine has to keep going. If it is not with a show-producer's affiliated entertainment company, the question is going to be – how? And with what?
And if you have the answer to that, you will have a chance of “making it,” and have a career following being on one of these "reality" shows. If not, you will be back to where you were before the show, and keep going as you would have with or without it.