When I turned onFox that fateful night in June, I had no idea that the result of my boredom would turn into an addiction. I wasn't exactly sure at first what I was watching, although I knew it was some sort of reality TV show. Normally, being the critic that I am, I would have turned it off citing the Fox network for more ruthless pleas for viewers. But I just couldn't bring myself to change the channel. The show was called American Idol and even though I was completely repelled by the shows that came before it such as Making the Band and Pop Stars, there was something different about this program. Something distinctive and unique that helped it to become the cult favorite of the summer.
The main purpose of the program was to find the next big pop singer, who would be offered a $2 million recording contract upon winning the contest. The less obvious point of the show was for Fox,a somewhat struggling network comparatively, to get its ratings up at a time where primetime television for other major networks is in syndication (aka re-runs). The show started out with a tour of major U.S. cities where applicants were given a short period of time to impress the judges with their voices and style, whereupon if they were good enough, they would be invited to Los Angeles for the finals. The finals lasted all summer as each Tuesday night the contestants would compete and each Wednesday night the weaker singers of the group would be kicked off.
The way in which the weaker contestants were selected was at first very subjective as the three judges made the decisions, but as the contestant pool narrowed down to 10, it was the American public who got to decide, by calling in votes for who they felt was the American Idol. Though the judges didn't make any decisions about narrowing the top 10, they did give commentary after every performance that made a huge influence on the viewers, as their selections almost exactly mimicked the suggestions of the judges.
Some would argue it was the judges that were the biggest draw for this show. For whatever reason, Fox decided to pick two record producers, one from America named Randy Jackson, and one from England named Simon Cowell, who had also produced the English version of the show called Pop Idols. The other judge was straight-up girl Paula Abdul trying to make a comeback since her long-lost days of 80s fame. Whether the bickering was staged by the network or not, the insults and snide comments were harsh and cruel, which is exactly what makes for good TV. For example, after one unfortunate young woman sang a rendition of "I will always love you" by Whitney Houston, judge Simon Cowell responded by asking her whether she had a voice teacher. When she responded that yes in fact she did, he told her to sue the teacher. If that isn't worth tuning in for, then I don't know what is.
Another draw of this show, along with a lot of the other popular reality TV series, is that through the weeks, we as viewers feel like we are getting to know these people as if they were our friends. We see them happy, upset, furious, and even ecstatic. But I often wonder if the Fox network feels it's worth it to be toying with the emotions of such young and impressionable teens on live television, just to gain some lousy points on the Neilson ratings. Sadly, the answer is yes, and we as the viewers are feeding right into it. Watching others have their dreams dashed and lives mocked is enjoyable and fulfilling, in some sick voyeuristic way.
Now this is not to say that there weren't some fans out there who simply liked to hear the different songs sung each week by the made-over teens. It was a great idea to have a televised contest with a spin on it that allowed the fans and viewers to influence the outcome. But how do we actually know that each one of our phone calls were tallied?
A few weeks ago a report come out stating that during one week of the contest, a few smart viewers had figured out how to rig their computers so that their cable modems would make calls casting votes repeatedly during the allotted two hours. These people reportedly racked up more than 10,000 votes. Whether or not these votes altered the outcome, no one is exactly sure, but in the end it did seem like the deserving contestant won.
So why exactly was the show so addicting and so very successful? This viewer thinks it's a lucky combination of good timing, ruthless mockery, attractive contestants, and the proven fact that we as Americans love to pass judgment on other people. What better way is there to do that, then to gather around our living rooms with friends and make comments about the young Hollywood hopefuls who ignorantly let Fox exploit them and their voices?