Commercial reality determines the winner and loser

opinion May 01, 2013 00:00

By The Nation

Thailand's reality TV shows haven't produced any genuine new artistic talent because the numbers game is dictated by looks, not ability

The television talent show “The Star” ended its eighth season last week amid controversy, with a former contestant accusing the production firm Xact of manipulating the voting and dictating who wins. The firm denied the charge, stressing that the show’s aim is to discover new talent, so playing favourites behind the scenes would be counterproductive.

It’s accepted that the makers of TV reality programmes sometimes stretch artistic licence to grab viewers’ attention and get them involved in the lucrative onscreen SMS voting. But is it even possible to have the best of both worlds – finding genuine talent while ensuring high ratings?
The reality genre has become increasingly popular in Thailand since “Academy Fantasia” was imported from Mexico almost a decade ago, and helped foster the homegrown show “The Star”. 
The Thai version of “The Voice”, a Dutch concept, has been more recently successful because it allows “ordinary people” to share their talent, especially during so-called “blind auditions” when judges and the audience can only hear their voices. 
Ultimately the contestants’ fate on “The Voice” depends on SMS polling. The judges and other commentators onscreen have little influence on the results. In most cases, however, the viewers – no longer “blind” – base their choices on looks and charisma. 
These are reality shows, so some contestants will gain support even if they’re less talented. A performer might come from a well-to-do family that can afford a multitude of SMS votes to affect the outcome – or he might just get votes because he’s good-looking.
Regardless, any time the wider public is involved in making such decisions, allegations of dishonesty are to be expected. But the honest truth is that the winner in any particular show is not always the most talented contestant. After almost a decade, Thailand still doesn’t have its own Susan Boyle.
Boyle, the “Scottish Cinderella” who rose to fame after appearing on “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2009, grabbed the spotlight not only because she’s a breathtakingly talented singer but also because she has what are called “plain” looks. She was the first to admit she was no glamour girl. “I knew they were laughing at me,” she said after her TV debut, “but I thought, ‘Well, they’ll soon shut up when they hear me sing.’”
Reality does seem to represent honesty in Boyle’s case. If you have real talent, it doesn’t matter if you’re short, chubby, have uneven teeth or messy hair, because you can still win over the crowd. The middle-aged Boyle became a finalist thanks solely to her vocal ability, with no help from her appearance. 
On the other hand, the painful truth of a talent show is that the results can be distorted when an attractive contestant “steals” votes from someone like Boyle, who can compete only in terms of talent. Producers don’t complain, either, as long as the ratings keep rising and people talk about the show. Even if looks prevail over talent, the show remains popular – and is only helped by debate. It’s a numbers game, and the best scenario for any producer is to have a contestant who’s both good-looking and undeniably talented – a true sensation who gets tongues wagging. 
We will continue to hear complaints and allegations about talent shows killing off genuine talent. The search for stars via popular vote is one factor supporting that claim. Another is that, as anyone in the industry can tell you, there is no moment that is not scripted. 
The programme format fixes the pre-selection of contestants. It is the producers’ obligation to keep the ratings up. So the contestants’ profile must match his requirements. Commercial goals command the highest priority. If there’s no real talent, a show can still stay on the air, but it will wither and die for lack of sponsors and SMS income. 
These are the realities of reality shows. And this is why Thailand has yet to find its own Susan Boyle.