This week marks the start of the 15th and final season of American Idol. In the UK, the last series of The Voice on the BBC will also begin (it will return to ITV in 2017). This follows the continual decline in viewing figures for The Voice in the USA and The X Factor in the UK, as well as other singing contests around the world.
Understandably, many are predicting the death of the singing show format altogether. It got us thinking. Why is this happening? And can anything be done to stop it?
It goes without saying that the format for singing shows, while still successful to a degree, has become tired and formulaic. No amount of changes to judging panels or presenters can disguise the fact that audiences have become apathetic to the ritualistic public humiliations, overwrought personal tragedy storylines and marathon-long live shows. I've had more surprising bowel movements than some X Factor shows. For reals.
That's not really the problem though. For example, panel shows, particularly in the UK, are still very popular. Or nightly talk shows in America. People don't mind a tried and tested formula. The main issue lies with the contestants. Bland, forgettable, safe are all words I would use to describe my mum's taste in music (sorry, mum). They shouldn't be used to describe the main protagonists of an entertainment show. But more often than not, they're the only words that seem fitting. Like, can you remember the last winner of American Idol or UK X Factor? Exactly. I've had more memorable bowel movements than...(you get the point).
So where are the Harry Styles and Melanie Martinez's of this world hiding? The ones with the star power and talent to drive themselves through the competition to become something more than a mere three month distraction. To actually become artists that people care about?
If there is one place where an absolute nobody can become a somebody, then it's YouTube. And I mean that in a good way. It's democratising. In that way, YouTube and reality shows are similar. You can be plucked from obscurity and launched into fame and fortune almost overnight. The advantage that YouTube has over reality shows is that YouTube allows for greater creative control and a wider spectrum of personalities. For many young artists, that has to give YouTube the edge over entering The Voice or X Factor.
Halsey's a great example of this. She's an outspoken artist with a lot of opinions, strong sense of aesthetic and off-beat pop sensibilities. YouTube was a natural avenue for her to begin, to explore her creativity and experiment with her sound. While doing so, she built a sizeable audience there, and through Tumblr, which eventually lead to a record deal.
Now, can you imagine Simon Cowell saying yes after hearing "The Haylor Song" (her breakthrough song on YouTube, a parody about Taylor Swift and Harry Styles - and unfortunately deleted off the internet since)? Definitely not. But imagine if he had. How interesting would it be if a reality singing show full of unique, provocative and talented artists, like Halsey, actually existed?
The point is, you can't pick boring contestants and hope to 'sex up' the show in others ways. It won't work because ultimately people just want to watch moving, impassioned performances by artists, not a 40-something guy who's got a tragic life story and a flair for "Unchained Melody" at karaoke. Reality shows have been at their best when they've had interesting and talented artists on the show. No matter what you think about their respective solo material, whenever Adam Lambert, Leona Lewis, Cher Lloyd, Kelly Clarkson, One Direction or Little Mix performed on the shows, it was exciting to watch. They made you come back for more.
So are singing shows dead? No. But they need to do more to entice these younger artists on to the shows. Giving them more creative freedom with song choices, outfits, and ultimately control over their own narrative would be a first step towards making it worth the risk. Then you might end up with more people like Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Halsey and avoid the mass exodus of young talent to social media altogether.
Artists will always want the exposure that these shows can bring, but lately they've looked more like a poisoned chalice than a golden ticket to Hollywood. If they can be convinced that it's not going to be a complete disaster, then there might still be hope for reality shows. The clock is ticking though.