Monday, April 30, 2007

Discovered and Forgotten

There's no question that we live in society that's obsessed with creative talent; just look at the abundance of television shows dedicated to "discovering" the next great talent in everything from singing to fashion design to dancing to modeling, not to mention slightly odder talents like hairstyling and "capturing the spirit of the Pussycat Dolls." Everyone loves a good rags to riches story, and as the popularity of viewer vote-driven shows has proven, people really like feeling that they've contributed to a person's success (and at an extreme level, they "adopt" a contestant and feel completely responsible for the person's success, but that's another post entirely).

All of this makes sense to me. But what I find really interesting is that once we've "discovered" a person and they're no longer filling our TV screens each week, we tend to forget about them and move on to the next up and comer. Just consider how many winners or runners up of these talent reality shows have gone on to succeed in their chosen career. Can you name the winner of every season of America's Next Top Model or Project Runway, or even American Idol? And do you know what more than a couple of them are doing now?

Even if you watched every season, the answer is probably no.

I was amazed when I recently read an article that listed the record sales of last season's American Idol finalists. Over 30.2 million households watched the final episode of the season, with 63.4 million votes cast in total. The majority of those votes were for Taylor Hicks, with Katherine McPhee not far behind. You'd assume that if that many people cared enough to vote for the winner (which costs money), they'd like the singers enough to want to buy their albums. Oddly enough, you'd be wrong.

Taylor's album, released in December of 2006, has sold 661,452 copies to date. Katherine's, released in January of 2007, has sold 298,507 copies. And this is one of the most popular television show of all time!

Still, the American Idol alums have enjoyed at least some degree of post-show success. Other winners have not been so lucky, as this incredibly depressing New York Magazine article on Project Runway winner Jeffrey Sebelia shows. And after 8 (!) cycles of America's Next Top Model, have we seen any of the contestants go on to real careers in modeling? The best we've got is Adrianne Curry whoring around on VH1 with her new husband Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady).

It's as if the process of discovering is fulfilling enough that we no longer feel compelled to contribute to this person's success. Maybe the way that the networks draw out these competitions and then ensure that the winner is plastered on every magazine, newspaper and talk show ensures that we're so sick of the person that we won't want to buy their album or their clothes. But most likely, our short attention spans simply make it hard to keep caring.


bipwop said...

Where are you getting your figures?
Saying that 200 MILLION (your caps) people watched the final episode of American Idol last year?
The actual number of viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, was 30.2 million, which is only 15% as many as you maintain.
The most watched show in TV history (the finale of MASH) had about 100 million viewers. No Super Bowl has yet to get 100 million viewers.
Your figures for the number of votes is accurate (63.7 million), but I doubt that this represents even 3 million people voting, since that would presume that each person voting averaged 20 votes! There were many, many people voting HUNDREDS of times that night for Taylor or Kat!
Let's say of those 3 million people voting, that 60% voted for Taylor, and 40% voted for Kat (which is what I've heard). That makes ROUGHLY 2 million people voting for Taylor. And, given his sales, that would mean that about a third of the people who voted for him bought his CD.
OK, that's not GREAT, but neither is it NEARLY as bleak as you portray.

Meg said...

bipwop- you're totally right. I got that figure from Wikipedia, but it has since been changed... I guess someone messed with the article. I appreciate you pointing that out though, I'm changing it right now.

MLE said...

Several of the Top Model contestants who didn't win have gone on to be relatively successful models. Perhaps the most successful is Elyse Sewell (Season 1) who's had a very respectable career in Europe and Asia for the last few years. Her blog is here:

That was actually the only season of Top Model that I didn't watch at all, but Elyse is intelligent, witty, and a good writer, so IMHO her blog is worth checking out.

Jessica said...

It is pretty strange how everyone loves to watch the shows that create these pseudo-celebrities, but we honestly don't care about them or their futures after all is said and done. I do think that American Idol is the exception my statement, as there have been a few stand-outs who have become very successful. Both Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken (although I cannot stand him) have enjoyed fairly accomplished careers.

I do have to agree that the NY Times article on ProjRun's Jeffrey was pretty depressing, but I think the high end fashion industy (in the case of ProjRun and Top Model) is wary of having anything to do with reality show contestants no matter how talented or beautiful because it's too "middle America" if that makes any sense. However, participating in these shows does provide the contestants with a lot of exposure that they otherwise wouldn't have had and it certainly seems to modestly boost their careers - if you've ever watched any of the "Where Are They Now" episodes of these shows, most of the participants seem at least somewhat pleased with themselves and the experience, so it can't be all that bad. They may not have become the next Madonna, Versace, or Giselle - but they definitely had their fifteen minutes!

Dana said...

I would respectfully submit you might have made your point without the word "whoring" -

Fletch said...

I think that part of the problem is how you (and the producers' of these reality shows) frame the issue. These reality shows are promoted as a means to "discover" the next great talent in....(as you so aptly put it), but do we expect that the winner of Jeopardy to be the next intellectual genius?

Popular culture loves the immediate gratification of a competition, but creative business success is almost always the result of a combination of experience, skill/talent, and luck. Of those factors, the winner of "American Idol" is only assured of possessing a measure of luck. Without the benefits of experience and skill (which together lead to a good product), the winners of these TV shows have little to sell to either popular or elite tastemakers once the thrill of the competition is gone and their work can be more rationally evaluated.

Sorry to go on for so long.

ambika said...

I think the word 'whoring' is entirely appropriate, especially given some of the questionable 'specials' that Adrianne and Peter have participated in (I think I caught 3 minutes of a sexiest bods special on VH1 where she & the Brady guy tried on sexy clothes.)

I watched the 1st season of American Idol sporadically at best and don't watch any of these other shows. Not that I'm above reality programming--I maintain that 'Best Week Ever' is excellent hangover fare. My problem is a variation of what you're stating herin: the 'success' that these shows are supposedly setting the winner up for is questionable at best, and simply exploitative at worst. In my mind, Fantasia or Taylor or whoever isn't really all that different from whoever 'wins' Flava Flav's love. And that's just no fun for me to watch.

Anonymous said...

Over-saturation of these famous faces in the media and on television has the public at first demanding more and more, and then suddenly looking for the next big thing. It's a phenomenon I myself can't understand fully.