Talent shows are the latest big thing. And we mean big – millions of worldwide viewers, millions in advertising revenues. But with only a small number of lasting success stories, are these shows exploiting the young for ratings and a quick buck for the TV companies? Piers Townley investigates
With the final of The Voice hogging the weekend’s headlines, the talent-show season is reaching its slick, oily climax – and the gloves are off.
In one corner we have veteran entertainer Bruce Forsyth weighing in with his view that TV talent shows are exploiting children. In the opposing corner, TV guru Simon Cowell champions them as springboards for emerging talent. Unlike Brucie, however, he has a vested interest in praising these shows – they draw viewers by the millions – and on the last series of Britain’s Got Talent, half of all the contestants were under the age of 14.
‘A generation has been profoundly affected,’ says child developmental psychologist Lisa Tairn. ‘It’s an instant-gratification culture. They want everything now and sometimes they don’t see why they can’t have it. Behind all this is the instant nature of our society and its pressures: reality TV, media A-list gossip and coverage, the narcissistic nature of social media – it’s all “me, me, me”.’
It’s true that for a handful of would-be musicians and singers, success has beckoned once the curtain has descended on the latest talent show. But at what cost?
‘It gives a false sense of hope,’ says Tairn. ‘Young and often very passionate, creative children see these shows as an easy way to fast-track a showbiz career. It presents this type of elusive lifestyle as something to aspire to. But we also see – and this is an important point – that behind many of them are parents pushing their own frustrations, desires and unrealistic expectations onto their children. The reality of these shows and the music careers, indeed life in general, is very different.’
“A generation has been profoundly affected. They want everything now and often they don’t see why they can’t have it”
Such high-profile exposure and the subsequent widely broadcast tears and anguishes of those who don’t make the cut generate passionate opinions, and not just from the old guard. ‘They don’t know what it is to bleed!’ exclaimed singer Ne-Yo in response to the production-line style of many of the US talent shows.
Foo Fighter Dave Grohl goes further in music magazine NME: ‘People should feel encouraged to be themselves. I swear to God, if my daughter walked up onstage and sang her heart out and some billionaire looked at her and said, “No, I’m sorry you’re not any good,” I’d throttle that person!’
Talent does shine through, but behind all the glitz and TV ratings it’s still a cut-throat and difficult industry to break into, let alone maintain as a career.
‘It’s the amount of hard work that’s involved in this industry,’ says Catherine Hockley, a music professional who works for Fifth Element PR. ‘Young bands and artists really need to do a lot of the groundwork themselves these days, especially with social media being such a necessary part of the package that labels and managers are looking for. I think bands struggle when they realise that carving out a musical career can also be a lengthy process.’
One of Hockley’s rising stars is Daniela Brooker, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter set to make a splash stateside and in the UK this summer. She’s worked hard (and yes, she’s had a team of professionals helping and supporting her, as you would in any industry) but she’s acutely aware that there’s rarely an easy route to stardom in the music industry. ‘You have to stay true to your music and what you are here for, because everyone has their opinion on what they think you should sound like or look like,’ she says. ‘Definitely do it your own way and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.’
What does demonstrate the fleeting nature of these talent shows – and the nature of show business itself – is the industry-wide feeling that their time has passed. ‘The cycle may be coming to an end,’ says Andrew Mackenzie, former head of factual entertainment at Channel 4. ‘Broadcasters are asking now for their next big X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. But you’d be surprised if the next big show was a singing or dancing show, wouldn’t you?’
“If my daughter walked up onstage and sang her heart out and some billionaire looked at her and said, ‘No, I’m sorry you’re not any good,’ I’d throttle that person!”
‘In a sense we’re all complicit in this circus,’ says Tairn. ‘From pushy parents to TV producers to aspiring children, being famous is appealing in so many ways. But it’s largely unrealistic without the understanding of the hard work, dedication and creativity involved. Such hopes can be incredibly misleading at best and, in many cases, damaging to children’s lives.’
Both Plan B and Dizzee Rascal are well known for using music and ambitions to cope with the hard knocks of growing up. They used their creative determination, along with inspiration from music teachers and projects, to direct their talent into their careers. Music for them was not an instant, easy showbiz step and, with the technology to be a bedroom DJ or living-room diva at most people’s fingertips these days, it’s time we encouraged young talent to love making music in itself.
There may be a career in it for them but the route to instant fame and fortune is strewn with hundreds of TV out-takes.
Daniela Brooker’s single ‘Breathe’ is released on 15 July. Her album PS is out on 29 July