The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.


Tom Shales

Amateur TV: Enough Already

May 27, 2007 9:51 PM

Hooray, it's over. Boo-hoo, I miss it. "American Idol" has wrapped up another season, its musical numbers now over and its Nielsen numbers down significantly but not catastrophically from last year. But the show is still a phenomenon: Who'd have thought that a network could get even 10 million people, much less 31 million, to sit still for two hours of almost nothing but singing, which is what the final "results" show amounted to.

At least there's likely to be a moratorium for a while on kvetching and carping from executives at other networks who think "American Idol" is just too big a hit to counterprogram against. Are these people nuts? In the movie business, one huge blockbuster is considered good for the whole industry, because it jazzes people about going to the movies, a habit easily abandoned.

This has to work to some degree in television as well. A talked-about smash like "Idol" reminds people that network television, a dying business, is still alive and occasionally kickin'. It just might drag some eyes away from cable, pay cable, video games or the free junk playing in little screens on their computer monitors.

The problem is that almost any major hit in television becomes a genre. Only a couple of nights after "Idol" had bid its big loud goodbye, Fox was ready with "So You Think You Can Dance," a show from the same producers and obviously patterned on the same prototype, even down to having three judges sitting at a table damning or praising or damning with faint praise.

And that show's season premiere came near the end of a week that began with the season finale of ABC's enormously similar "Dancing With the Stars."

So it is that fans of utterly meaningless competitions featuring amateur talent and lots of product tie-ins can hardly be said to be facing a famine, whether "American Idol" is on or not. The thing is, "Idol" is to the genre it created pretty much what the Oscarcast, with all that's show's glaring flaws, is to all other entertainment award shows. It's the big one, and by this point in "Idol's" reign, even its annoyances have become somehow endearing.

Ryan Seacrest turns out not to be quite the preening airhead he may have seemed and manages an enviably relaxed demeanor even when the show is live as opposed to live-on-tape.

He's at home on the air, which is still a relatively rare talent to have.

All that said, it's pretty obvious that the saturation point if not the tipping point has been reached, with the competition shows in such excessive profusion. The proliferation of "Idol" imitations may in fact be responsible for seasonal erosion of "Idol" ratings, rather than disenchantment with "Idol" itself. Fox used the penultimate edition of "Idol" to premiere yet another competition show inviting (eventually) votes from viewers: the horridly dull "On the Lot," a contest among young filmmakers to see who will win a $1 million development deal. The game quickly became more a test of egos, temperaments and childish tantrums than anything else.

(Hearing the title, I couldn't help think of "Onda Lotta Lot," one of the once-familiar anonymous "spies" quoted in the old Hank Grant column in the Hollywood Reporter. Those were the days.)

It seems logical to ask if there's really a large enough audience nationwide that's fascinated by the filmmaking process and willing to watch quickie shorts made by novices. Clearly, no-the first night of "Lot" blew that "Idol" lead-in to bits, chasing more than half the audience away and losing Fox the night. Obviously the producers thought folks would keep watching because of all the sniping and griping by the contestants, all the backstage backstabbing that started almost the minute the spoiled little creeps were given an assignment that would reduce them in number from 50 to 36. They were wrong.

The illustrious name of Steven Spielberg, executive producer along with Mark Burnett and a few others, had been generously bandied about beforehand by Fox, but when the show materialized, Spielberg did not. He was tremendously absent. He wasn't a judge, he wasn't visibly in charge, he didn't even deliver a few words of welcome to the aspiring, perspiring film tots. He was represented by his name only, in the show and in one of the commercials, a clattering ad for a forthcoming Spielberg-produced movie called "Transformers."

Yes, a film based on a toy. Is that the kind of thing the eager young filmmakers of "Lot" are aspiring to? Better raise your hopes there, kids. Or go into marketing, which is what the movie business has largely become. Be part of the tail that now seems to wag the dog.

Sponsor Verizon's commercials on "Lot"-and it appears to have a hefty stake in the show, not just casual spots-were built mostly around the idea that everybody in America if not the world wants to make a movie, as if it were one of our basic essential human rights. But why does everybody have to make a movie or even have to care about the movie business? Are people really attracted to "deluxe" DVDs that include six or seven hours of peeks backstage at the filmmaking process?

At this rate, so many people will be making movies or TV shows or YouTubings that there will be no one around to watch them. The audience becomes the show and the show, the audience.

The young filmmakers on "Lot" talked about having legacies and wanting to make big statements to the world; those are the ones who, if they become professionals, always sell out at the slightest temptation and agree to make "Transformers 3."

Remember the "Me Decade"? That was small potatoes. We have entered the Me-llennium. All the world is screaming "Me! Me! Me!" And every me has a story they deem themselves entitled, even mandated, to share. People beam themselves up to the Web via the cameras trained on them from their own computers.

It's a new wrinkle on voyeurism: The exhibitionist and the voyeur are the same person, eager for attention-anyone's attention, any pair of eyes. And just like the networks they may claim to despise, they want as many pairs of eyes as possible.

On the second episode of "On the Lot," the surviving contestants were given their next preposterous challenge: directing the shoot of a scripted scene in one hour. Almost immediately the contestants became combatants, back to bitching and moaning and each one saying he was better than the other members of the team. Perhaps this is indeed a glimpse into the real world of filmmaking, but it's not a pretty picture.

"Transformers" wasn't the only movie hawked during commercial breaks. So was the latest, umpteenth edition of yet another Disney franchise. Big words flashed on the screen: "Lie! Cheat! Steal!" The movie's about pirates, not about show business. But you sure coulda fooled me.


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Comments (2)

Gary Clarke:

excellent observation on our rapidly changing industry. But you didnt go far enough. I am still wondering what a blog is, and why it is so important for everyone to have one.Oh well, call me old school who is just looking for great commentary from qualified collumnists.

Hiram Scott:

I saw pretty much the entire American Idol show this season for the first time, it was interesting at times but I wouldn't go out and purchase a DVD or DVD set of the show, it simply didn't have that much of a punch. The show was not very much different from Star Search, most of these shows have more hype behind them than substance, they are just cultural favorites for the time being until something else comes along to replace them. What I don't like about these types of shows is that they promote and celebrate a form of competition that I feel is unhealthy.

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