Pop Idol

Saturday, November 24, 2001 by

Next week sees the final episode in this particular phase of ITV’s convoluted pop talent series – Pop Idol. Thankfully, there are no signs yet of this programme growing tired; and television makers fearing the worst after the damp spectacle of Soapstars will breathe a sigh of relief as the Popstars format is still officially the current “next big thing” in Reality TV. Of course a degree of tweaking was required to maintain the same elements of despair and elation as Pop Idol moved from the open audition stage to the final 50; however the programme makers have ensured that the contestants’ reactions remain at the centre of the show rather than their performances. As such the programme remains a rare treat on a Saturday night.

Many have remarked upon the welcome inclusion of Ant and Dec to preside over the Pop Idol experience; and indeed over the many weeks in which this series has been running it has proven to be a wise move. The immediacy of presenting “live” from the auditions has brought a fresh perspective to the genre, but more importantly it has allowed us to pry even further into each contestant’s moment of despair. Whereas before, it felt a little unseemly for a camera to suddenly corner a weeping auditionee; here it is perfectly acceptable, simply because whilst Ant and/or Dec attempts to console or commiserate the broken hearted contestant, we can – with conscience clear – observe at the closest quarters that most precious of television moments – the shattering of an ego.

Showmanship on the part of the contestants is one thing, but – as with Popstars – some of the judges are trying to influence opinions too. Whilst Nicki Chapman and Pete Waterman appear focused on getting the job done; Simon Cowell and Dr Fox have their minds on other matters. For Foxy here is an opportunity to expand upon a public persona that has, until now, labeled him as simply a rather faceless, opportunist DJ with a cheesy moniker. With such a persona, anything he can do here to allow the public to appreciate that he has any depth of musical opinion, or human kindness will do him no harm whatsoever. Simon Cowell is closely tied to Pop Idol and to its success or failure, so his motivations are more complicated, and perhaps on occasion somewhat suspect.

It will surely have escaped no one that the real talking point behind Popstars was “Nasty Nigel”. Whilst the popular press has yet to find an appropriate alliteration for Cowell (Surly Simon, Sarky Simon, Snooty Simon), there is no escaping that he has surpassed Lythgoe (Executive Producer of Pop Idol) in terms of mythic status. Like Harry Potter, Cowell is now permanently encased as an exhibit of British Popular Culture – November 2001. Yet this has been a calculated course charted by Cowell and the Pop Idol team. A talent competition in which there appears to be nothing at stake does not make for enthralling television. Whilst there is an alluring star prize in Pop Idol, it is the battle to avoid humiliation that most captivates the viewer; and Cowell is integral in this process. In a recent interview he decried the anonymity of Star for a Night: “It’s had two winners so far but no one has a clue who won, so the show didn’t work.”

As a result of Cowell’s obvious desire to keep Pop Idol in the public eye, one can expect a disparaging remark to be delivered as least as often as is required to keep the programme exciting. For this Saturday’s programme this was required pretty frequently, as the least charismatic of the remaining contestants were put through their paces. Of course the final heat sees the return of the series’ two most controversial contestants – Rik and Darius. Cynically held back until the end (and pitted up against the poorest of competition), no one really minds that the whole stated purpose of the programme (to find a pop idol) is being compromised to fulfil the real purpose behind Pop Idol – to entertain.

A word about the ITV2 broadcasts is required. Obviously attempting to ape the popularity of E4′s Big Brother coverage, ITV must have felt they were on to a real winner here (particularly with the introduction of interactive Who Wants to be a Millionaire shown later in the evening, thus giving the station its first genuinely attractive evening line up). Broadcast from 4pm to 7pm Monday – Wednesday, the carefully crafted formula behind Pop Idol is noticeably absent on Pop Idol Extra. Perhaps this is down to Kate Thornton’s presentation (she is patently out of her depth), or – more likely – due to the fact that the contestants are shown at their most indulgent. Removed from the high wire of performing for the Judges, these three-hour broadcasts remain slow and repetitive with the attention residing foursquare on the “talent” of the contestants.

A massive misassumption has been made here: the contestants do not fascinate us, per se (in the way we were with Big Brother); they appeal to us only during those moments in which they are either losing or winning. The humiliation or the glory is central to Pop Idol. As the series progresses and defeats grow ever more creditable, one is left to wonder exactly how Ant and Dec will – in their charming way – maintain the emotional tension that currently so superbly underlies each show.


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