Is the Simon Cowell era of Reality TV almost over?

Simon Cowell

I’ve got a lot of love and respect for [[Simon Cowell]]. He’s created and starred in some of the most entertaining TV talent shows of the last 10 years. But his time is coming to an end. And I think he knows it.

Recently, Simon’s been dropping hints about leaving American Idol. Yes, I know he always says stuff like that, but I get the impression that he might be tiring of the judging game. And I think he sees his winning formula starting to lose its lustre.

  1. Cowell’s hyperbole about show winners being the ‘best thing ever’ is getting a little tired. More X Factor winners have faded into obscurity than gone on to have international careers. The fact of the matter is that none of the contestants have really matched up to the hype that he and his publicists have created. The cracks in this approach are starting to show.
  2. In fact, I’d go a stage further and suggest that he’s mismanaging Leona Lewis by pigeon-holing her as an overblown ballad factory. Leona is perhaps his most successful X Factor winner, but instead of the cool urban tunes of her pre-X Factor career, Leona is now dressed up in massive frocks and a symphony orchestra strikes up every time she opens her mouth to sing. Is she being given a chance to showcase her songwriting skills? Is her music a reflection of her tastes rather than a prepackaged selection of songs using label songwriters and decided in a boardroom?
  3. The backlash against Simon Cowell (as a figurehead of reality talent shows) seems to be gaining momentum. He’s always faced criticism, but it’s intensifying lately: this weekend, the brother of the Britain’s Got Talent sensation, Susan Boyle, spoke out against him for failing to capitalise on the attention she’s been receiving from America. OK, Mr Boyle clearly doesn’t understand what lifting Susan out of the competition and giving her a recording contract would do for the integrity of BGT. But it’s rare for the family of a contestant to speak out so vociferously against him – mostly for fear of turning him against the contestant.
  4. His original acid-tongued persona has become a bit boring and predictable. Well, it has been almost a decade. But eagle eyed bloggers have been picking up on the fact that he routinely tells at least three contestants per episode that that was the best performance tonight and once per episode he’ll claim that they’ve given the best performance of the season.
  5. I was particularly disappointed in him when – at the end of X Factor 2008 – he unashamedly switched allegiance to Alexandra Burke from his own contestant, Eoghan Quigg. He clearly saw Quigg as a turkey who had no chance of selling records (despite his earlier praise for the boy) and knew that Alexandra would give him a clear repeat of the success he had with Leona Lewis. I can understand his reasons for doing so, but it proved that everything he’d said about Quigg was empty rhetoric.

From my conversations with X Factor contestants and fans, the career path for an X Factor winner goes something like this:

  • Create an extraordinary amount of hype for the contestants, with lots of statements like ‘the best singer this country has ever produced’ and ‘even though you’re only 15, you’ve got the confidence of someone who’s been performing for years’.
  • Nudge public opinion toward the ‘chosen’ contestant…the one the showmakers want to win. Pretend to be surprised at the eventual outcome.
  • Hide the winner for the next 10 months, but dropping enough information to prove they’re alive and in a recording studio. Wax lyrical about how excited you are for the public to hear this awesome new material. Compare said winner to a legendary singer to increase expectations (unless you’re Louis Walsh and you compare them to Westlife).
  • Release the first post-winning single with a tie-in live performance on the next series of the show. Follow up with an album that’s filled with the bare minimum of original songs and about 80% covers. Probably covers that Sony BMG owns the rights to so that maximum profits stay within the company. Is it true that Cowells company owned the rights to Hallelujah?
  • Lather, rinse repeat. Unless the sales figures aren’t up to snuff or the artist demands creative input, in which case, push the button under your desk to activate the trapdoor, dropping said artist into the crocodile put under your office. Well, what did you think ‘being released from your contract’ meant?

I hope this goes to show how thin the formula has been stretched. I’ll reiterate that I don’t believe Simon Cowell is Satan in high-waisted trousers, but his track record in creating long-lasting stars out of members of the British public needs to be called into question.

On the face of it, there’s a search for talent. It’s a big, bombastic competition and it’s undeniably entertaining. But for the winners (and many runners-up), the successes aren’t guaranteed – because someone people will vote for on a Saturday night show doesn’t automatically translate into massive record sales. Especially when the artists are given second-rate material to release which becomes a disappointment to them and to their fans.

For my part, I think it’s time for Simon to exit his judging roles. I can see a move towards more intelligent, constructive judging that I like: Cheryl Cole was the best judge on 2008’s X Factor, and [[Kara DioGuardi]] continues to impress me on American Idol, with fantastic real-world advice that the contestants can use.

And that’s a good thing. But what is also needed is a better support system for the winners and runners-up. They need a better quality of songwriter on board and not to release albums loaded with covers. In a post-Cowell world, reality TV talent shows need to get smarter about how they develop the talent: give them creative input, let them play an instrument if they can, give them original songs they can call their own. Most importantly, make them live up to the hype they generated on Saturday night TV.

I’ll miss Simon if he decides to leave, but maybe for the good of the format, we need fresh blood and new approaches to judging these shows. I certainly think it’s time he stepped down.

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2 Comments

  1. Anon_mous

    If only Cowell were really as intelligent as he thinks he is-And perhaps capable of putting together better insults, then maybe he could be compared to Satan.  He’s more like the formerly bullied child who’s now Satan’s contemptuous miserable hack alcoholic employee.

    But God, I hope you’re right that reality TV is almost over and quick.  Cowell seems to believe his own hype and has further destroyed civility without the satirical pay off of South Park or Family guy.

    Although I always wondered if Satan was behind the incomprehensible  Teletubbies or The God awful Power Rangers.  Note to Simon, if you’re going to market soulless dumbed  down crap, fine.  Just don’t go bitching about every irritation as if you were really trying to create fine art!

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