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Testing times for talent

Louise-BergLouise Berg, senior associate, Reed Smith LLP

Talent shows have featured on our televisions screens since the dawn of the medium. From the days of The Original Amateur Hour in the US and Opportunity Knocks in the UK, viewers have enjoyed watching ordinary people perform their socks off to achieve their dreams.

This is because TV talent shows provide a compelling combination of human interest and pure entertainment. Everyone loves to watch a great singer belt out one of Whitney’s best, but the performance is more enjoyable if you are on a journey with the performer. Viewers also like to play God and talent shows remain one of the few genres where they can determine the outcome.

As talent shows are so loved by the public, it follows that they are loved by producers. The megaliths of the talent show world (like American Idol, X Factor and the Got Talent franchise) have returned season after season, and new talent formats continue to spring up.

While on face value the genre seems to be alive and well, with many talent formats still featuring on primetime television, recently there has been a decline in ratings for some of the bigger shows. The latest season of American Idol pulled in around nine million viewers on average, a figure way down from its heyday of 30 million, and earlier this year it was announced that season 15 will be the last. In the UK, ratings for The X Factor are gradually declining, prompting speculation the show will be dropped.

Ultimately, if they are to continue making the cut, there are challenges to overcome. One problem, particularly for singing competitions, is that the talent pool could be drying up. The chances are that most talented singers have already auditioned for one of the big shows, and producers can’t just sit and wait for the younger talent to come through. Dropping the age range to include more children is one solution, but that brings legal and ethical challenges.

Producers are trying to deal with this issue by sending out scouts, increasingly to other countries, but the inclusion of international contestants can sometimes lead to immigration issues (and major embarrassment if talent has to be excluded).

Scouts are also having to rely on more established performers in their quest for talent. The requirement that contestants be amateurs was abandoned long ago, and many recruits are professional singers. These contestants are more reliable, but they are also more savvy when negotiating. Some already have managers on board, which adds another layer of complication given that finalists are often required to sign up to the producers’ preferred managing agents.

Everyone understands that audition slots must be filled, but producers need to be careful as recruiting experienced talent is not popular with the viewing public. People can feel cheated if they learn that a contestant has already had a recording deal, or has been deliberately scouted.

Talent shows must adapt to the challenges of a digital age. The content works well as short-form video, but producers have to think how to monetise it effectively. Some people simply watch the best performances on unauthorised YouTube clips rather than tuning in to full length programmes. Also, if producers can find more ways to find to bolster the decline in ad revenue from traditional forms of TV then their shows are more likely to succeed.

As far as social media is concerned, talent shows are a natural fit: these shows were interactive well before the advent of the internet. While most talent shows have embraced social media, when it comes to formats, it is questionable how creative producers have really been with social networking. Arguably a more inventive format with social media at its heart could be a standout success.

For now, the public’s love affair with talent shows continues, albeit with slightly less ardour. There are still a multitude of talent shows on our screens, but this in itself is an issue for producers. To draw in viewers (and avoid format claims) producers must differentiate their programmes.  Talent shows are already expanding beyond the traditional areas of music and variety, with recent formats showcasing baking, sewing, pottery and even barbecuing, but there is a limit to what prime time viewers will find entertaining.

There are certainly challenges to be overcome, but the basic formula remains a winner. It’s unlikely that talent shows will be voted off our screens any time soon.

Louise Berg is an intellectual property lawyer