Sunday, May 1, 2011

TV talent shows - Whatever is old is new again!

It seems to be the season for TV singing talent shows. American Idol 10 is building towards its finale, and NBC has just launched The Voice. Nigel Lythgoe's brainchild, CMT's Next Superstar, is catching on and later this month, the sixth season of America's Got Talent returns. Then, in September, Simon Cowell brings the X-Factor to the US.

We haven't seen this many singing talent shows on the air since 2003 when network execs who had passed on Idol, scrambled to put something on the air to capitalize on the show's massive and surprising popularity. But this genre is far from new. In fact, competitive singing talent shows have been around for 75 years!

The first competitive singing talent show, Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, debuted on CBS radio in 1936. The show ran for ten years, ending in 1946 when Edward “Major” Bowes, the creator and host of the show, died. The show launched the careers of a number of popular singers, the most notable being Frank Sinatra who appeared on the show in 1937 as a member of the Hoboken Four singing group.

In 1948, the program was revived with simultaneous television and radio broadcasts. Ted Mack, who was a talent scout and assistant to Major Bowes, was the new host for the show, which ultimately bore his name. The format of the show remained the same as it had on radio and was surprisingly similar to that used on today’s shows. Contestants had to go through an initial audition process, and those who were accepted performed live before a national audience.

Each week, the show began with the spinning of a wheel to determine the order of the contestant’s appearance (“Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows”). Viewers and listeners chose the winners by voting, either by phone or mail. The winners returned the next week and competed against new challengers. After winning three times, contestants were awarded prizes, including cash, scholarships, and a chance to be part of a stage show, which toured the country.

Many notable performers got their start on this show and the list includes Gladys Knight (who performed as a 4-year old), Pat Boone, Teresa Brewer, and ventriloquist Paul Winchell. The Original Amateur Hour ran until 1970.

At the same time Ted Mack was getting his show on the air, talent agent Arthur Godfrey, who had been doing a popular radio talent show for ten years, launched a televised version of his show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. This show, which was on the air from 1948 to 1958, was different from Mack’s in that the contestants did not necessarily have to be amateurs. Talent scouts went across the country looking for talented people who were struggling to get recognition and brought them back to New York to perform before a live audience. Each week, after all the performances were complete, the audience would indicate their preference by applauding. Their reaction was measured by an “applause” meter. Whoever scored the highest reading on the meter won the prize!

Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was instrumental in launching many successful careers, including those of Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Leslie Uggams, Lenny Bruce, Steve Lawrence, Connie Francis, Al Martino, Roy Clark, and Patsy Cline. In fact, Patsy Cline, who sang “Walkin’ After Midnight” on her first appearance, was so well-received that the applause exceeded the capability of the meter and nearly broke it!

Godrey’s scouts didn’t catch everyone, though. In March 1955, Elvis Presley auditioned but was rejected. Buddy Holly was also turned down. Nonetheless, this show was popular throughout the 1950s and frequently finished in the top 10.

The TV talent show disappeared during the 1970s, although an “anti-talent” show, The Gong Show, was launched in 1976 airing until 1989. This show was strange indeed, and was more along the lines of the American Idol “bad” auditions. People would perform their acts in front of a panel of celebrity judges. The judges had the option of booting the contestant at any time during his or her performance by hitting a huge brass gong with a mallet! If they were really bad, the contestant might get pulled off the stage by a big hook!

Those performers who were not “gonged” were rated by the judges, and the contestant scoring the highest was awarded a cash prize of $712.05! People were allowed to compete more than once, and became minor celebrities in their own right. One such repeat performer was the “Unknown Comic,” a comedian named Murray Langston, who wore a brown paper bag over his head when he did his routine. The list of those whose careers were launched on this show is rather short, but does include Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) and actress Mare Winningham.

The first Star Search debuted in 1983 and ran until 1995. Ed McMahon served as host, and the show featured singers in various categories, dancers, and comedians. Star Search did not limit contestants to being amateurs and the show launched the careers of many struggling artists. The alumni from the original Star Search is impressive, and includes Alainis Morisette, Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Tatyana Ali, Girl’s Tyme (the precursor to Destiny’s Child, including Beyonce), Drew Carey, Linda Eder, Brad Garrett, Tiffany, Sharon Stone, Jessica Simpson, Carlos Mencia, Dennis Miller, Rosie O’Donnell, LeAnn Rimes, Ray Romano, Sawyer Brown, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Sinbad, Usher, Phil Vassar, and Dave Chappelle.

American Idol, which debuted in June 2002 and proved to be a ratings smash, lead to a revival of the TV talent show genre. A new, but not-improved version of Star Search, launched in 2003, and ironically, served as a training ground for many Idols-to-be, including David Archuleta, Alexandrea Lushington, Nadia Turner, Jessica Sierra, Lisa Tucker, Joe Murena, Melissa Walton, and Amanda Avila. Bianca Ryan, who won the first America’s Got Talent was a contestant on Star Search, as was Jordis Unga, who was a finalist on Rockstar: INXS

A flood of TV talent shows soon followed, none of which were able to come close to matching Idol’s rating share. Again, many served only to introduce the public to future Idols, including Diana DeGarmo and Jordin Sparks (America’s Most Talented Kid). The list of TV talent shows that have sprung up since Idol is long. Some of these shows, including Nashville Star and the Rockstar series, were moderately successful, while others like The One, failed miserably. Although Dancing with the Stars is running neck and neck with Idol for ratings this season, Idol remains king of competitive talent shows after nearly ten complete seasons.

Note: Portions of this article were first published on Foxes on Idol.

1 comment: