Fame Academy

Saturday, August 9, 2003 by

There’s something odd about television this summer. A few years back, your normal evening’s viewing in mid-August would consist of back-to-back repeats, mostly from the previous Christmas, with the odd new programme that seemed to be too bad to show at any other time of the year. It made sense – there was no point in throwing away big shows when viewers were on holiday or outside enjoying the sun. So what to make of this summer, when at teatime on the hottest day of the year, two of the most hyped and most expensive programmes of 2003 went head-to-head?

The clash between the new series of Fame Academy and Pop Idol apparently came about because BBC1 could not find another slot for their reality show – Friday, where the show went out last year, is now officially Comedy Night (despite the recent repeat run of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in that slot) and later on a Saturday they’re committed to the lottery and Casualty. You’ll note, though, the latter is currently off air until the autumn, somewhat undermining the argument. What this stubbornness means is that, as well as the smaller audiences that a teatime midsummer slot will bring, Fame Academy will have to put up with constant, self-inflicted comparisons to Pop Idol throughout its run.

Of course the BBC would tell you that the two programmes are very different. Certainly the first series of Fame Academy had enough unique aspects about it to make it a substantially different proposition. After some very public teething troubles, it eventually became a thoroughly entertaining programme. They’d clearly thrown tons of money at it, so you got a massive set and flashy lighting. This was put to good use with the students indulging in complex dance routines and ambitious collaborations. The variety of music in each show was impressive, and regular special guests added to the appeal. Better still, all this, plus the vote-off and footage of day-to-day life in the academy, was condensed into just one hour a week.

This series, however, is rather different. Seemingly the original format was considered too complex, so rather than three students a week getting nominated for eviction, every student must now sing for survival on every programme. This means 13 people each getting one minute to sing a song – an identical format to Popstars and Pop Idol. With 13 students at the start, this makes for samey and boring viewing. There’s no variety, unlike the last series when we got students singing and dancing together, and with the limited time it’s not a particularly good illustration of what they’ve achieved so far in the academy. Worse still, it also means that despite the shows being longer this year (now shown in two parts around the lottery), much less actually happens.

This new format also dilutes the concept of a continuous learning curve. Last time, it was up to the teachers to decide which three students were up for eviction each week, based on how they felt they were performing. The bonus of this was that those who weren’t up for eviction could spend their time writing songs or coming up with new ideas without a huge amount of pressure. This time, though, with every student up for eviction every week, this won’t happen and that makes the show weaker. Rather than the teachers putting proper thought into who they believe is working well, based on weeks of study, it just comes down to whether the public like the look of them after a minute or not. The phone lines are also open constantly, so you can vote hundreds of times for your favourite without even hearing what their next performance sounds like.

Another change is the setting. The huge studio from last time has been abandoned, with the whole show now coming from a small studio inside the academy instead. It’s meant to provide a more intimate setting, but with a tiny stage it means that all the students can do is stand there and sing. Unlike last year, when Ainslie was crowd-surfing and bounding up scaffolding most weeks, the most this year’s intake can do is simply walk a few paces forward – thus putting the emphasis almost entirely on singing, rather than all-round performance. This also means that dance teacher Kevin Adams has been demoted to the role of “fitness coach” and no longer appears on the live shows – a shame, as he was one of the more perceptive and amusing judges. Instead, we’ve got Robin Gibb; a high-profile signing, and no doubt he’ll be able to help the students with singing and songwriting (if, indeed, songwriting is even taught this year), but an utterly useless judge. Gibb seems unable to provide any sort of criticism, instead simply coming up with such meaningless comments as “you have an international-style voice”.

At its peak, the first series of Fame Academy was a satisfying mix of reality TV, variety extravaganza and game show, utterly unlike its ITV rivals. With this series, though, what we’re seeing is a parade of hopefuls after your vote, with the lowest-placed singer going out – basically, exactly the same format at Pop Idol and Popstars. This seems ludicrous – if you’re going up against Pop Idol, why make your show exactly the same? There’s virtually nothing to justify giving up Pop Idol to watch Fame Academy, more or less the only difference now comes in the presenters. And Ant and Dec versus Patrick “Good work, fella” Kielty is no contest.

Neither BBC1 nor ITV1 come out of this scheduling clash with much dignity intact, but had Fame Academy‘s format stayed the same, the BBC could have argued that they were two completely different shows aimed at a different audience. With this new blanded-out Fame Academy, though, there’s no contest. What we have here is Son of Pop Idol, and with the original just a press of the remote away, it’s a lost cause. Now you can bring out the Lame Academy puns…


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