Once Upon A Time, in a dark, fearful period of our nation's history, America had absolutely no amateur talent shows on TV. Shocking, right? But this isn't a fictional horror story -- there was actually a time, in our not too distant past, when there WERE NO TALENT SHOWS ON TV.
And then came... STAR SEARCH.
Perhaps you were expecting me to say American Idol? To be expected. For many, Idol was their first encounter with a televised talent show (you can't count The Gong Show). For those too young to remember (or too old to recall), Star Search was, in fact, American Idol BEFORE there was an American Idol -- or even a Ryan Seacrest. Hosted by Ed McMahon (best known as "the guy from the end of Johnny Carson's couch"), the show scoured the country for young, undiscovered performers with dreams of becoming (you guessed it) stars, and gave them a spotlight, a stage and panel of judges to impress. Given today's television landscape this seems surreal, but in 1983 when the show debuted, there was really nothing else like Star Search on TV.
However, Star Search didn't even have a network home. This was before cable's heyday, and apparently it couldn't find purchase on the broadcast networks. So, "the Search" was syndicated across local affiliate stations, airing at different times, in different markets. It was awkward (especially for the actors and spokesmodels), hokey -- the show's host, Ed McMahon, wore a powder blue tux -- and even a bit silly. And I loved it. As mullet-wearing Sam Harris went on his record-breaking 14-week-unbeaten run, mom and I tuned in every week to see if he and his soaring falsetto could do it again. Star Search ran for an impressive 12 years and, while it was popular, I was incredulous that not EVERYONE I KNEW watched it.
And then again, America suffered through the dark years of a TV talent show drought. When American Idol popped up on FOX in June of 2002, I remember thinking, "Hey, look -- Star Search is back." I watched the Idol auditions, but didn't get the same high as when Ed was hosting and Sam was singing.
Where were the comedians? The spokesmodels? The show did well initially, but it wasn't a clear break-out hit. Then, as the summer went on, something happened. By the finale in September, America had Idol Fever. The last episode attracted 23 million viewers. The next spring, the show went nuts -- averaging 26 million viewers for the season, with 38 million people tuning in for the finale.
In just a few months, Idol and its producers (Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe) had reintroduced the idea of an amateur talent show to American TV and reinstated the "anyone can make it big" dream back into our culture. For 10 seasons now, Idol has captured the hearts, minds and eyeballs of the country and brought in the type of mass audience thought unrealistic in today's fragmented 1000-channel universe. Over the years, the show has even managed to give us some talented and successful musicians.
However, in its wake, Idol has created something far more nefarious than bubblegum pop stars. A raft of zombie imitators has crept onto the TV schedule -- attempting to capture the excitement and audience FOX has seen with the mothership. With X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance, America's Got Talent, America's Next Top Model, RuPaul's Drag Race, The Voice and (gulp) Dancing With The Stars, one cannot turn on a television on any given night without seeing a talent competition of some shape or form (and this doesn't even include fashion, food or design based shows). America is awash in amateur singers, dancers, jugglers, sword swallowers and models, and the celebrities who judge them.
Look, I LIKE talent shows. And I definitely will NOT deny anyone the dream of being coached to fame by Cee Lo Green (anyone who gets America to sing F*CK YOU must know talent, right?). MY issue isn't with the idea of TV talent competitions -- it's with the glut of song, dance and "et cetera" competitions on TV right now. Here's the thing: AMERICA JUST ISN'T THAT TALENTED. The more "talent" shows we get each season, the less "talented" is each slate of competitors forced upon our screens, airwaves and eardrums. In short, we are spreading our talent too thinly across too many shows and it's doing long-lasting damage to the genre.
Need proof? Consider the Star Search list of alumni performers. Competitors from Star Search include Adam Sandler, Brad Garrett, Britney Spears, Carlos Mencia, Jackie (The Joke Man) Martling, The Coors Light Twins (dance competition), Alanis Morissette, Dana Gould, Jessica Simpson, Dave Chappelle , Beyoncé, Dennis Miller, Drew Carey, Justin Timberlake, (aka Justin Randall), Martin Lawrence, Norm Macdonald, Kevin James, Ray Romano, LeAnn Rimes, Rosie O'Donnell, Sharon Stone (Spokesmodel), Sinbad, Steve Oedekerk, Sutton Foster, Tiffany, Usher (then using his surname Raymond) and, yes, Christina Aguilera.
The combined winners from all the talent shows of the past 10 years can't hold a candle to just the losers from 12 years of Star Search. Ok, I'll give you Kelly Clarkson. But, quick -- name any one of the winners of America's Got Talent (without using Google). How did ONE show discover so much talent? Maybe, as a country, we were more talented in the '80s and '90s. More likely, it's because Star Search was the ONLY TV show searching for talent at the time. The TV talent show is an important part of TV history -- Tony Bennett, Lenny Bruce, Roy Clark, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Don Knotts, Steve Lawrence, Jonathan Winters and Patsy Cline all got their starts on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. But never before has the genre been asked to support SO MANY shows at one time. It's now clear why.
As TV journalists dissect the ratings erosion for Idol, Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, and the disappointing viewership for The Voice finale or the entire season of X Factor, they're missing the most obvious answer. We don't have enough talent for all these talent shows. Each season, Dancing With The Stars stretches the definition of 'Star' even further (Nancy Grace? Chaz Bono?); Idol hasn't produced a bona fide star since Carrie Underwood; and America's Got Talent seems far more focused on their celebrity judges than what's on stage.
This is not easy for me, America. But it is abundantly clear that we, as a nation, are not as talented as we think we are. (And, let's be honest, we don't buy enough music to sustain all these stars we're trying to create either.) If we genuinely long for a place for amateur performers to shine, if we sincerely want TV shows to help us find our next crop of young talent, then we MUST do some pruning. The demand these shows put on our national tastes and talents has left us unable to discern the musical wheat from the dancing chaff. As a result, the shows are suffering from a deficit of genuine talent, and the competitors are being set up for eventual disappointment. C'mon, let's face it -- while they all may be very nice people, few of them will be legitimate stars.
It's up to you, America. Vote not with your texts or calls, but with your remotes. And, for you, the TV industrial complex, to cure what ills the current harvest of talent competition shows, the prescription is simple: LESS is MORE.
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