The Price of Talent

Britain’s Got Talent draws audiences in the tens of millions, but at what cost? investigates

The BGT Parade

The BGT Parade

That time of year is here: that time when the nation grinds to a halt so that the virtual world of reality television can dominate our Saturday nights. Simon Cowell is on our screens with Britain’s Got Talent alongside Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams. A fresh batch of first-rate loonies – and also some genuinely talented people, let’s not forget – have plucked up the courage to stand up on stage in front of four famous faces, and potentially, if mad enough or exceptional enough, will appear on television in front of millions.

But what’s most interesting about these talent-finding contests, be it X Factor or BGT, is how the producers find the material necessary to make television gold. We love a contestant who looks like David Gest and sounds like Whitney Houston – but we love them even more if they’re back story is tragic or just plain weird. People who make us gasp in shock or bawl into our Saturday night curry is the reason why Simon Cowell is laughing all the way to the bank.

There is a large stretch of time between the audition process and the program finally being aired on television. Why? Well, behind the scenes of BGT there is a small army busy trying to find juicy information on the contestants. Youtube is scoured for any amusing videos that people have already posted – indeed, many acts don’t even have an audition: BGT comes to them.

Anthony, a runner for Syco (Cowell’s production company), told me about an act that was found this way: a woman and her performing. A terrible home video, complete with pathetic tricks, but with the potential to provide at least brief amusement. She was contacted by BGT and almost immediately after walking on stage and performing for a matter of seconds she was very loudly ‘buzzed’ off by all four judges. The production team knew she wasn’t going to make it through the audition process but sought her out simply to make good TV. “She marched straight off stage, swearing abuse at Ant and Dec about how she had been made to look a fool on national television”, said Anthony. Of course the woman made the choice to answer BGT and go on stage to perform, but one must question the ethics of a program that deliberately seeks out vulnerable people who are apparently so desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame – even if it is at the expense of their dignity.

It doesn’t always matter if they have buckets of talent. They could be the next Mariah Carey but if they haven’t got some sort of interesting story behind them then we won’t put them through.

The country’s insatiable appetite for auditionees with a ‘story’ is known as ‘poverty porn’, and forms a huge part of showbiz culture. The crux of these shows is based on people tuning it to see certain characters who go on emotional journeys that people at home can empathize with. We want someone to attach to so that we can follow their story through to the end.

Anthony surprised me by saying “It doesn’t always matter if they have buckets of talent. They could be the next Mariah Carey but if they haven’t got some sort of interesting story behind them – be it a lost relative whose dream it was for their child to appear on BGT, or even that they’ve had something radical happen like a sex change – then we won’t put them through. Sadly, it isn’t only about talent. Talent alone doesn’t make laugh-out-loud TV.” It seems that we as a nation like to feel that we’ve discovered someone – given them a chance, a ray of hope – all from the comfort of our armchair.

Would we have loved Susan Boyle as much if she hadn’t looked the way she did? It sounds all too judgmental and superficial but the exact reason why her BGT audition became a worldwide phenomenon was because we just weren’t expecting a scruffy, 48-year old Scots-woman to bellow out ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ like that. And that begs the question, is she really that talented or did her looks amplify her talent? Rob Leigh, a blogger for Mirror.co.uk thinks so, “Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was spirited, sure. But was it charismatic enough, technically accomplished enough or even demonstrate enough potential to see her installed as the bookies’ 5/2 favourite to win the whole shebang? Absolutely no way. And genuinely comparing Susan Boyle’s off-key warbling as being on the same level as Julie Andrews and Elaine Paige is just inane.

Looking especially to those who become aware of Susan Boyle via the hype machine – are you really moved to tears by the power of her singing voice, or the self-satisfied knowledge that you yourself would NEVER have pre-judged the ‘unlikely’, ‘drab-looking’, unemployed, never-been-kissed, self-deprecating, bullied-at-school, ‘quintessential cat lady?’ It’s true – as a nation of reality-television obsessives, talent must go hand-in-hand with a success story.

Going to watch the live BGT auditions in Manchester in January was an experience. The venue is far smaller than that used for the X Factor and you are in scarily close proximity to the judges. It’s a fun atmosphere, although you are encouraged to ‘boo’ and ‘jeer’ just as much as you are to cheer. In the few hours I was there, I spotted many acts that were chosen purely for comedic value. From a lady with erratic budgies and a mini-carousel, to a man who I’m sure was putting on a German accent.

It certainly felt like a modern-day freak show that was at times cringe-worthy. I could see who had been put through the many preliminary auditions just to be embarrassed on camera. Simon Cowell has in the past come under fire by mental health charities for pressuring mentally unwell people to appear on the show only to be buzzed off to hundreds of boos and shouts. However, despite the sinister side of the talent shows, the people who work there couldn’t be happier. Surely that means Simon Cowell is doing something right.

I spoke to Lily Evans, Ant and Dec’s runner for BGT 2012, somebody whose job means the world to her. Of course these reality television shows can be seen to exploit people, but they also serve to offer those with no chance of success a lifeline. Even Susan Boyle, who referred to fame as “a lot like a giant demolition ball” and was reportedly a little closer nervous breakdown than is strictly desirable, said on ‘NBC Today’, “I’m having a wonderful time. I don’t want it to end. It’s just incredible. It’s indescribable, really.” The unfortunate fact is that until the viewing figures start falling, then these shows are going to keep coming – and that means people will continue to be pursued to appear on them.

Reality television will never change. The reason we love it is simple: we love to see people succeed and we love to see people suffer. However, both Anthony and Lily beamed when I asked them if they loved their jobs. Not once did they mention this perhaps darker side to the glitz and glamour of the show. As Lily says “I wouldn’t exchange where I am, and what I’m doing for anything. I’ve made some amazing life long friends, learnt so much, and am even more driven in the industry than I even have been before.” These words mirror those of 2009 BGT winners Diversity: “We had such excited emotions, so mixed. Until that point, the nerves were unreal. There were tears. When they said our names we were running around in circles and jumping up and down. I’m sure my knees actually gave way.” It would seem that no obstacle, physical or mental, can stand in the way of the reality TV buzz.

For all the latest BGT news, views and satire, check out the Channel Hopping blog at nouse.co.uk/blogs

15 comments

  1. “It sounds all too judgemental and superficial but the exact reason her BGT audition became a worldwide phenomenon was because we just weren’t expecting a scruffy, 48-year old Scots-woman to bellow out ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ like that.”

    Ah, another sneering jab at Susan Boyle’s vocal talent and the people who are moved by it.

    It may sound all too judgemental and superficial but the exact reason a critic may write the above statement was because of the insularity and parochialism of critics.

    Step out and talk to the actual millions who were moved by her and you’ll find it wasn’t the hype that made their hearts soar but the VOICE.

    Susan Boyle has stunningly beautiful voice and, yes, it does make me cry to listen to her sing. Even three years later.

    Reply

  2. 11 May ’12 at 12:59 pm

    Andro Salvatierra

    It’s been three years since Susan Boyle was discovered on BGT and we still have to endure this judgmental and superficial garbage pretending to be a critic.

    If you want to know what people think about Susan Boyle, I recommend you a video of her singing a duet with no other than Elaine Paige. You will be surprised that most people find her voice way more beautiful than Elaine’s.

    It’s seems so obvious you have never gave yourself the time to listen to Susan Boyle’s voice. You have a preconception of how she should sound and then you wrote based on your own prejudice.

    Reply

  3. Obviously Susan Boyle’s almost instant worldwide fame had nothing to do with her quirky, charming personality, her courage to go out there and risk all, her great voice – no, it was simply because she didn’t look the way she sounded.

    For proof of your judgement of Susan’s talent or lack of, you offer us ‘a blogger from the Mirror’. Wow, such impressive credentials! One of the tabloids that tore Susan to shreds with great glee.

    Read some of the great reviews of Susan’s appearances at the finale of the stage musical about her life. One thing all reviewers seem to agree on is that Susan Boyle’s voice is amazing.

    Reply

  4. 11 May ’12 at 1:56 pm

    Bella Foxwell

    I am NOT writing based on my own prejudice. The quote below is not mine, it is Rob Leigh’s from Mirror.co.uk, it just hasn’t been quoted properly and looks as if that is my opinion.

    ” Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was spirited, sure. But was it charismatic enough, technically accomplished enough or even demonstrate enough potential to see her installed as the bookies’ 5/2 favourite to win the whole shebang? Absolutely no way. And genuinely comparing Susan Boyle’s off-key warbling as being on the same level as Julie Andrews and Elaine Paige is just inane.

    Looking especially to those who become aware of Susan Boyle via the hype machine – are you really moved to tears by the power of her singing voice, or the self-satisfied knowledge that you yourself would NEVER have pre-judged the ‘unlikely’, ‘drab-looking’, unemployed, never-been-kissed, self-deprecating, bullied-at-school, ‘quintessential cat lady?’ “

    Reply

  5. To a point I agree with you. Talent shows use people for entertainment. They find people who don’t look like typical singers and don’t have any talent to reinforce the idea that if you don’t look the part you can’t have talent.
    Believe it or not some of us are fully aware of the scam and that’s why we don’t watch talent shows.
    Every now and then these talent shows actually find talent and change lives for the better even though that’s not their main goal. Their main goal is to provide entertainment and they do it at the expense of others.
    I was sent Susan Boyle’s video and I didn’t jump to the conclusion that she’d be awful. If you did, I feel sorry for you because that means that you yourself are arrogant and gullible.
    By the way, watch that video again and you’ll see that she never talked about being bullied. I realize that most contestants have a sob story but she didn’t, she tried to get through the humiliation with humor.
    One other thing. After discovering Susan Boyle I found out who Elaine Paige was. She’s very good indeed.
    I own all 3 of Susan Boyle’s CD’s because her voice touches me like no other. I won’t be buying any of Elaine’s.

    Reply

  6. The writer isn’t claiming that SuBo is a ‘freak’ or anything of that kind – if you actually read the article you will see that. She is simply stating the downside of the culture we live in where we do judge by appearances and make a huge fuss of people who don’t look the way we think they should when in actual fact all that matters is the TALENT. Shows such as the X Factor and BGT deliberately choose people that look unusual to make ‘good tv’ – trying to play to the public’s judgemental side.

    The article isn’t about Susan Boyle!!!!
    It is about the reality television show and the ridiculous processes they go through the make ‘good television’.The only mention of Susan Boyle is to prove that people (even ‘bloggers from the Mirror’) out there do have prejudices about appearances and reality television shows perpetuate that. I’m sure there is a Susan Boyle Fan Page somewhere on the internet where the above comments can be made.

    Reply

  7. Predictable retaliation from a bunch of unnecessarily ignorant prunes! If the article was read correctly, you would see that Susan Boyle is not being ridiculed as you so casually claim.

    It is not an attack on Susan Boyle, the article highlights the tactics of the television companies who purposely search for sob stories to increase viewers. So Karen, if you are wanting to dish out your pity, it is to these companies that you should so kindly give it to.

    Karen, please waste your brainless attacks on something you are actually capable of challenging, try cbbc.

    Regards Jacob. esq

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  8. NeutralParty and Jacob are quite bent out of shape that after the writer of this article spent two paragraphs using Susan Boyle as an example in decidely negative terms, finding an insulting blogger to quote for support, someone should say that they disagree with how she was portrayed. Karen agreed with the general premise of the article but gave personal evidence that Boyle’s success has been based on her talent, not her looks or her story. Nobody insulted the article. They simply set the record straight with regard to a major point made in it. It’s called the right to reply.

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  9. Uh…Susan’s STILL pretty popular regardless how she’d “obtained” that FAME, “the market worked” for her AND us!

    Reply

  10. 12 May ’12 at 1:25 pm

    Pixie Petroff

    I will just answer your one question. I was busy at my desk and the TV was on. Then I heard this glorious voice and immediately jumped up running into the TV room and there was this cute lady singing her heart out. I stood there totally mesmerized by her voice. I have bought all her albums.

    Reply

  11. 12 May ’12 at 3:29 pm

    Peace and Love

    Linguini, she never worked in Tesco’s! Get your facts straight! That was fat Mary…. The massive woman from a few series back. This is good stimulating article though. Issues like this need to be brought forward. Susan herself accepts that she’s not a looker. This has made her very rich. She probably loves being ugly and wouldn’t have it any other way!

    Reply

  12. @Jacob, I’m truly sorry if that comment went over your head.

    Reply

  13. The X Factor is exactly the same. I auditioned 2 years ago in front of the producers, who all said I had a great voice but they “couldn’t” put me through.

    Yet the guy in front of me who was tone deaf and had no teeth went through to the judges.

    Reply

  14. So many others have experienced exactly what Pixie Petroff describes above, and I envy them, because they know without a shadow of a doubt that Susan’s power over them lies in her voice, and not in her story.

    The same has happened with ‘Wild Horses’ when it was played on the radio – people listening in their cars had to pull off the road to hear the whole thing, without knowing who the singer was. And a number of people who consider themselves too cool for Subo had the same experience when they heard ‘Mad World’ and ‘Enjoy the Silence’ playing in the shops – they rushed to find out who the amazing singer was, and were aghast to find that it was none other than Susan Boyle.

    There are so many of these accounts that there’s really no point in asking if it’s her voice or her story. The evidence is there.

    That being said, I don’t find it ‘unfortunate’ or ‘dark’ for the producers to ferret out acts that they think the public will find entertaining, as long as the contestant is of normal intelligence. These shows know by now that they will generate a huge backlash if they ever take advantage of the truly unfortunate. So it really isn’t the same as the freak shows of times gone by.

    Reply

  15. Can I just add that the blogger for the Mirror loses all credibility when he says that Susan sang off-key. She does have a TERRIBLE time with tempo when she is stressed, and also unfortunately she sometimes forgets lyrics; but one problem she does NOT have is with pitch.

    Reply




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