Had its day ... Interest in American Idol, which features Aussie (and ex-Voice coach) Keith Urban on the panel, is fading.
- Recap: Will.i.am's inertia
- Amateurs should avoid The Voice Australia
On television at least, it looks like the beat doesn't go on.
The phenomenon of music-based television shows, which have dominated the ratings for more than a decade, seems by nearly every measure to be over or in steep decline.
X Factor creation ... Teen idol Harry Styles (right) of One Direction benefited from the music TV genre, but Simon Cowell says it has become too tired. Photo: Getty Images
"They flooded the market," said Simon Cowell, perhaps the individual most responsible for turning amateur singers into superstars, with his roles on American Idol, The X Factor and America's Got Talent. "There have just been a ton of shows and something has simply gone awry."
As broadcast network executives descend upon Manhattan this week to hawk their new programming wares to advertisers in the springtime ritual known as the upfronts, shows filled with music have gone achingly flat.
It is hardly the first time television has burned out a genre through mass imitation and overexposure. Networks rode Westerns into the ground. They exhausted the audience with singers trying variety shows. At one point, almost every night had a news magazine. And, most famously, ABC ran the sprockets off its game show hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with four episodes a week at its height, leading to a precipitous plunge in ratings and its relegation into syndication.
Revitalised ... New The Voice Australia coach Kylie Minogue. Photo: The Voice
The music genre has been both longer lasting and more potent than most of these examples - until now.
The show with the starkest reversal of fortune is American Idol, a show once so overpowering that rival networks gave up trying to compete with it. Now Idol, which spawned the careers of Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, collects ratings that are even worse than many of the woeful shows it once left in its wake.
Last week, the one-time blockbuster slid to a new all-time low for one of its performance shows, with only about 7 million viewers (one season it averaged more than 30 million) and a puny 1.7 rating in the category its network, Fox, sells to advertisers - viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.
Idol once averaged a 12.6 in that group; as recently as 2011 it averaged an 8.6. Even this season, Idol started out with a 4.7 rating in that category. And the median age of viewers of the show has grayed drastically: growing from 32 in its first year to 52 this season.
"It's now your grandmother's Idol," said Brad Adgate, the senior vice president of research for the media-buying firm Horizon Media.
The fall of Idol has been several years in the making: it slumped 30 percent each of the previous two years. But it fell from such a lofty perch that the show remained a hit. But its recent demise has sent the show into uncharted, inhospitable territory. Its precipitous drop means that the show is no longer the gold mine that it once was for Fox. One executive familiar with Fox's ad sales said that American Idol generated close to $3 billion in profit for the network over its 13-year history. But little of that has been banked lately.
"They almost certainly had to offer make-goods this season," Adgate said. ("Make-goods" are free commercials to compensate for shortfalls in ratings guarantees.)
The malaise affecting music shows has already killed off X Factor, an Idol clone brought to the United States by Cowell (the franchise still runs in more than 40 countries). The show premiered to much fanfare on Fox, but was gone after three seasons of declining ratings. Fox executives also became convinced its presence diluted interest in Idol.
As the music-competition shows sputtered in recent seasons, music in other forms was also losing luster on television: NBC's Broadway drama, Smash, opened big and closed early; ABC's country-music variant, Nashville, has never posted anything beyond subsistence ratings. (ABC delayed its decision to renew Nashville for a third season until almost the last minute last week.)
And Glee, Fox's big hit in the musical-drama arena, once averaged over a six rating in that 18-49 group. Now it barely can score a one rating.
Dancing With the Stars was half-cancelled by ABC last season, dropping from two shows a week to one. That stemmed a ratings plunge, but the show continues to lose young viewers. Dancing now has one of the oldest audiences in television with a median age of over 62.
Even the last remaining music titan, NBC's The Voice, though still one of the more formidable shows on network television, dropped to a new ratings low last week. That raised questions - among some NBC competitors at least - about whether the show's downward spiral might be accelerated because NBC runs two cycles of the competition each season. (The median age of Voice viewers has also climbed from 42 in its first season to 52 this year.)
In Australia, the music reality series is holding its own, with The Voice coming in as Nine's number one ratings show at the moment, taking the top four slots in last week's ratings ladder.
That's largely due to its recent reinvention to include one of the most bankable crowd-pullers in the country - Kylie Minogue.
But Australian Idol, the series which started the talent-series ball rolling here in 2003, was dropped in 2009 after falling ratings.
It is expected Australia's Got Talent and X Factor, when they return, will have tweaked formats (aka The Voice) to retain relevance.But if ratings slide, they too could follow in the footsteps of Idol.
The slackening in ratings for these shows in the US is being matched by tepid record sales. "The awful stat is in stars created by these shows," Cowell said. "The last true breakout artist we had was Carrie Underwood on Idol. That was eight years ago."
Idol made a raft of stars early, including Underwood, Clarkson, Hudson and Chris Daughtry. The recent roster is less populated with familiar names, though Phillip Phillips, the winner two seasons ago, has had commercial success. The winners on The Voice are much more obscure. "Who does better? The Voice judges or the Voice contestants?" Cowell said. "It's quite obvious the judges have sold a ton more records."
One production executive who has worked on music shows and has had years of interactions with music executives, said, "I think the record companies are off the notion that they can create stars off these shows." The executive asked not to be identified because of continuing relationships with both music and television executives.
Cowell said the business model for these shows should be at least as much about finding hit singers as winning hit ratings. He said he only got into television as a way to find performers for his label who would sell records and concert tickets.
The live tours featuring Idol performers are not what they once were either. Marc Graboff, president of Core Media Group, parent of 19 Entertainment, the owner of the Idol franchise, said: "We're definitely doing a tour this year. There is a passionate core audience. It's smaller than it was."
Everything about Idol is smaller, leading to speculation that next season Fox could possibly keep the performance show, but drop its especially low-rated results show. But Idol will produce 59 hours of television this season, hours - even at diminished ratings levels - Fox would be hard-pressed to replace.
Graboff said that he would not be averse to trimming some hours off that total. "We're in the middle of discussions with Fox," he said. "We want to protect the franchise. Fox wants to use Idol to launch other things. I understand that."
Certainly fewer singing shows are being pitched to networks, though ABC has both an upcoming singing competition (Rising Star) and a series slated for fall, Galavant, which is a "musical comedy fairy tale" that will offer original music from the famed Disney composer Alan Menken.
Both Graboff and Cowell said that the music genre format wasn't dead. Indeed, Cowell promised a surprise new show to be announced during this week's upfronts to an industry that, he noted, is famously fickle.
"When X Factor doesn't do the numbers you want, for a while you're a pariah. It's over. 'He doesn't know what he's talking about,'" Cowell said. "I've had that all my life in the record business. You have a massive hit, then you sign another artist who doesn't hit and it's 'Don't go near Simon. He is so over.' Then you come back with somebody else and you're hot again. That's what I've always accepted about television in America."
Upcoming amateur singers hoping to be discovered on a reality show would be well advised to avoid The Voice.
The hit Nine Network reality is tracking like a stripped-back version of Australia’s Got Talent (AGT). AGT was peppered with professional acts, such as illusionist Raymond Crowe, who had already performed in front of The Queen.
The deeper The Voice gets into the must-watch blind auditions the more we are seeing professionals and semi-professionals go through.
On Monday night Chicago-born 63-year-old Doug Williams, who played bass with music legend Ray Charles, was recruited by Joel Madden. Williams’ resume is impressive and he’s no amateur.
Neither is New York-born Lionel Cole, the nephew of another US music legend Nat King Cole, who is under the guidance of Ricky Martin. Cole, 46, has toured with Mariah Carey’s band, even co-wrote one of her hits and penned the music for The Brady Bunch movie. He could possibly pass on some tips of his own about writing songs.
Madden is expected to remould Williams, who was in a band which once toured with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Shi-lites before Madden was born. They are not alone.
Sabrina Batshon, who made the top 10 on Australian Idol in 2007, has also established herself to the point of being professional. She was supposed to meet Barbra Streisand’s manager but had an anxiety attack and never got on the plane to the US. On Monday she joined Ricky Martin.
Others who have a professional music background include Harry Healy, C Major, Louise Van Veenendaal who is based in LA, and established opera singer Elly Oh.
It makes the selection of the likes of church singer Jess Berney and WA farm girl Holly Tapp even more commendable. But it also means many raw and inexperienced singers never make the cut.
As much as it is entertaining, The Voice shuts out many who are trying to get a leg-up in an industry that is very much a closed shop to those on the fringe. The quality and depth of the artists who do make it through fits the formula of the show which is about selling cover versions of songs on iTunes.
Remember the big battle round moment last year when seasoned professionals Steve Clisby and Mitchell Anderson belted out a hair-raising rendition of Walking In Memphis? It was sensational and possibly the highlight of season two. Neither won.
The real stars of the The Voice aren’t the contestants but the mentors. The prospect of ‘‘discovery’’ looks more and more like a by product of a very well constructed and highly entertaining reality TV show.
New York Times, with Scott Ellis. Voice comment by AAP's Darren Cartwright.