Tuesday 19 September 2017

When reality bites for our TV judges

We take a look at how stars fare in life after judging

The Script's Danny O'Donoghue has stepped down from 'The Voice UK'
The Script's Danny O'Donoghue has stepped down from 'The Voice UK'
Judges Simon Cowell, Dannii Minogue, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh
Jessie J did a stint on The Voice
Jennifer Lopez was a judge on American Idol
Ed Power

Ed Power

What now for Danny O'Donoghue? After a mere 18 months in the revolving judge's chair at The Voice UK, the heroically gelled singer is stepping down. He has announced he wants to focus on his day job fronting The Script (a funky Irish Coldplay, for those choosing not to keep up with these things).

He isn't the only one throwing in the judging towel. Jamelia, RTÉ's ambitious replacement for Brian Kennedy on The Voice of Ireland, is leaving, less than a year since bagging the gig. This has plunged the production company behind the top-rating series into the tricky position of having to come up with a marquee stand-in before series three commences filming. With 500,000 viewers per episode, a lot rides on their pick.

These are big calls. Particularly for O'Donoghue (32) who, it has been argued, owes his fame in Britain to television rather than music (he was christened 'Danny Donowho?' by the UK tabloids when unveiled as a Voice judge ). Now he's walked away, can he maintain his profile? Or will he do a 'Sharon Osbourne' and watch his celebrity diminish much as the X Factor judge witnessed hers ebb away the moment she stopped appearing on ITV, perched primly next to Simon Cowell every week (she's back next season instead of Tulisa Contostavlos – and, presto, all over the media again).

The same question can be asked of Jessie J, who quit the Voice UK several days ahead of O'Donoghue, likewise citing a wish to focus on her music career.

As the pop industry struggles with diminishing record sales a berth as a reality judge is not to be looked askance at (no matter that the ratings of most such programmes are currently on a downward trajectory).

What was once regarded as a novel distraction for a popular entertainer with time on their hands has practically become an occupation in its own right. Look how RTÉ's version of The Voice transformed Niall Breslin from struggling indie singer leader to national he-totty. He, rather than obscure toilers such as Season One winner Pat Byrne, is the programme's break-out star (Byrne's latest single stiffed at 80 in the charts).

Indeed, in interviews Bressie has stated that fronting The Voice is essentially a full-time job. This, he believes, is the reason fellow panelist Brian Kennedy quit in 2012. He simply couldn't tour and be on TV at the same time. "You can't do this show and play gigs," Breslin said.

Elton John, of all people, was first to identity this shift in reality television's emphasis, away from the wide-eyed wannabes and towards the judges who, the occasional public vote notwithstanding, hold the contestants' futures in their steely grip.

"The Voice is all about watching the judges . . . Nobody on The Voice in America has had a hit record. Nobody on The Voice in England has had a hit record – they're non-entities. Television and video have done a lot of damage to music. They've propelled people into stardom that aren't ready for it. And they're only as good as the next song. I hate that, I hate people being cast aside."

The cult of the uber-judge began in America with the (then) controversial appointment of Jennifer Lopez as American Idol adjudicator in 2009. In the US, reality talent shows are all about those on the panel, the contestants are a mere excuse for them to pontificate, score laughs and start feuds with one another.

Competition for viewers has prompted an arms race between franchises, each seeking to recruit the highest profile panelist. Post J-Lo, The Voice US delivered the first punch, securing Christina Aguilera for a reported $12m. That coup was quickly overshadowed by Simon Cowell's X Factor recruiting Britney Spears for a rumoured $15m price tag.

Tellingly, none of these 'stunt' judges lasted very long. J-Lo left Idol after two seasons, to focus on 'other interests'. Aguilera exited The Voice at the same point, again to 'pursue opportunities' (she's primed to return next season to replace her own replacement, Shakira).

In January Britney quit The X Factor amid speculation her contract was not going to be renewed. Far from bringing her car-crash persona to viewers' living rooms, the chief complaint was that she was a little too grounded – or, to put it less charitably, boring.

"They paid $15m for her to say 'amazing' and offer half-claps," one insider told the American magazine US Weekly. There's a reason producers are stumping up so much for judges.

It is increasingly clear that we are tuning in to watch them rather than the contestants who, more and more, seem an afterthought.

Consider that a major talking point on the current season of American Idol is the feud between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey ("I'm not f*cking putting up with her f*cking highness over there," Minaj is quoted as saying at a recent audition in a story on gossip site TMZ). Fans are advised to enjoy the sparks while they are flying as both are to wave adieu at the close of the season.

Conversely, life in the wake of a top rating show can be a struggle also. Sharon Osbourne – whose post X Factor CV includes stints on America's Got Talent and the bizarre Rock of Love: Charm School – we've already mentioned. Danni Minogue, too, it can be argued, suffered a hefty downgrading to her star rating when she left the UK X Factor.

Maybe that's why she's back in the judging game with this season's Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model. It is this fate that Danny O'Donoghue may wish to avoid, though the omens are not especially positive.

The Script can be regarded as a band on the back foot with their latest LP 3 underperforming in the UK and America (it did very well in Ireland – but that's not much use, commercially speaking). As the trio plot their next move, is Danny damaged goods?

"The post-show careers of departed judges Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, Cee Lo Green, and more prove that weathering the indignity of a reality-TV judging table may not be worth that cash," wrote Newsweek journalist Kevin Fallon in the Daily Beast recently. He pointed to Lopez as an example of how reality TV can permanently tarnish a reputation.

"After leaving Idol, Lopez hasn't had another song hit the Top 20 of the Billboard charts. The two live-action films she starred in, What to Expect When You're Expecting and Parker, grossed an embarrassing $41m and $17m, respectively."

You know the debate over reality judges has gone to a scary place when, of all people, Simon Cowell is complaining that they are receiving undue attention. The creator of X Factor singled out the bad blood between Carey and Minaj as an example of ego television run riot.

"I'm bored by a bunch of millionaires bickering amongst themselves while somebody's on stage going, 'What about me?' I can't bear it any longer."

Judging by the sliding ratings for The Voice, The X Factor and the legion of lesser watched reality shows, it would seem he is not alone.

Irish Independent

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