The black hole of reality TV is destroying stars before they get a chance to shine
Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30
The X Factor returns tonight and, as ever, nobody is talking about the contestants. Rather, the chatter revolves around a double-helping of new judges - Rita Ora and the already annoying Nick Grimshaw replace Louis Walsh and Mel B - and whether arriving presenter Olly Murs will be as irritating on television as on stage (having witnessed his most recent arena show I doubt it possible).
Many believe that this is exactly as Simon Cowell, the franchise's brooding overlord, would wish. With the focus on the adjudicating panel few are contemplating the latest batch of rag-tag hopefuls or posing pointed questions as to the whereabouts of already half-forgotten 2014 champion Ben Haenow (missing in action since Christmas). As Cowell is surely aware, while ratings remain extraordinarily buoyant, X Factor's star-making power is lately greatly diminished. Setting aside the fluke five-headed juggernaut that is - or was - One Direction, it is, in fact, an eternity since the show last bequeathed upon us a pop icon worth cherishing.
Indeed, there's an argument that, 1D aside, the stand-out graduates from recent seasons of X Factor are prat-falling boy-trolls Jedward - world-class self-publicists for sure but unlikely to be mistaken for musicians with bright futures. Then Cowell didn't get where he is - atop a very considerable pile of cash - without knowing precisely what the public wants and is well aware X Factor and its ilk are no longer minting the stars of tomorrow. If anything, reality TV's morphed into a vehicle for handing a second chance to the stars of yesterday: fading luminaries such as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and, to stretch the point, newbie Rita Ora.
X Factor, of course, is not alone in this tale of diminishing returns. If anything it remains towards the head of the pack when it comes to bestowing celebrity (no matter how fleeting) on the unknowns it plucks from obscurity. Trailing far, far behind is The Voice, in both its Irish and UK iterations. Can you name a winner of either? Why should you - nobody who has ever featured on The Voice has come without rock-chucking distance of mainstream success. A majority are forgotten by the next ad break (again, it's the judges reaping the exposure). This is in contrast to a decade ago, when reality TV was churning out ready-packed celebs like horse-burgers from an off-the-books meat rending plant. Remember Nasty Nick off Big Brother? How about Shayne Ward, X Factor's original-of-the-species cheeky chappie (who could sing a bit). There was Jade Goody, the late Big Brother contestant, and Jordan and Peter Andre - already famous (ish) but whose careers were thoroughly revitalised as they canoodled through an early season of I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! All you had to do was act out for the cameras and, boom,you were all over the tabloids and on the way to a lucrative book deal.
Those were the golden years of reality telly. It truly was possible for a striving nobody to achieve lasting - or at least long-lingering - fame. That is assuredly is no longer the case (unless you're Katie Hopkins off The Apprentice who, entering a Faustian understanding with the celebrity gods, has gained her own television chat show, albeit at the price of becoming the most hated woman in Britain).
Reality television is instead slouching towards middle age - and, by every appearance, a crisis of identity. It's well over a decade since Pop Idol ushered in the era of the insta-celeb by pitting Will Young against Gareth Gates. In TV years, that's half a lifetime. In the intervening period the format has stretched and bended, assumed unlikely shapes and guises - see RTE"s Celebrity Farm, anything put out by TV3 - and evolved into one of the dominant small-screen genres. But it no longer commands our attention as it used to. Should this ailing trajectory continue - and there is no reason to suspect it won't - the ability of these programmes to mint any kind of star at all may soon vanish (as evidenced by the MIA Haenow such might already be the case). Indeed, a day may shortly arrive when the dearest wish of an X Factor contestant is to emulate the panto-bothering, middle-rung success of Jedward. Generation Jedward - there's a thought you keep you awake and sweating through the night.