Back Story – Cowell TV

Simon-cowell I spent much of last night watching Simon Cowell take over the commercial channels. And watching the backchat via twitter. It was a tour de force. Xfactor is a mature programme format. There are no surprises left. And yet he managed to aggregate the biggest audience of the year and keep most of it as the programming stream followed into Piers Morgan's deferential studio tribute for Susan Boyle. I left the stream when Cheryl took over on ITV2 to chat to Alexa last years winners and play records. MT Rainey retweeted Mike Butcher following 2000 people who commented that the only ones not commenting on Xfactor were in the US and China. Its fun to follow if like me you are interested in how major transmedia events are orchestrated. Compare with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas show which assembled audiences of similar size a generation ago. All they had to do was spend a lot of money on writing and producing in the confidence that the audience would be sitting in their living rooms around the TV just waiting for the Eric and Ernie to be served up to them.

Cowell's skill is in constructing layer after layer of stories. He has lots of sub brands each with their own story. Each of his judges functions simultaneously as product and editor in their own right. Piers, Cheryl. Piers interviewing Danni last week. The weaving goes over and over. With enough space left for us to construct conspiracy theories. MelB was supposed to get Cheryl's judge slot but her agent screwed it up. Danni raises the issue of Danyl's bisexuality to protect her own stable of singers and sparks a media storm. And Cowell rises above it all – supposedly alongside as a judge his fellow judgets refer to him constantly as the boss. They know he's capable of anything to keep the bandwagon on track. Because ultimately its about him. Cowell's is the backstory holding all of this together.

The Cowell Supernova offers the beleagured ITV only a temporary reprieve.   He is having to use more and more fuel to feed the giant. This year he continually fed in his own artists more than once. Plus a string of A list performers with product to push. Including one Beatle.  His celebrity endorsements can only be recycled so often. Robbie Williams, George Michael and Michael Buble were both used twice in return for exposure. Robbie can't be best friends with a contestant every year can he? Not if he knows what's good for him. And the detritus of has beens is growing all the time and will grow the audience's cynicism. Because the contestants do sound rather alike. They are singing songs which are 20-40 year old. And criticising contestants for sounding like nightclub or musical theatre singers reminds the audience that this is where most professional musicians work. But I don't expect it to happen any time soon because Cowell can remix from 4 pools now. The UK and US versions of Xfactor and …got talent. 

Cowell succeeds because television needs him. By aggregating an audience so fast and keeping them for an evening he creates the illusion that he can fix the gaps in the programming stream.

He's mostly bad for his artists who get turned into clones. Playing Leona Lewis at one extreme and Sue Boyle at the other – he peddles the notion that he makes their dreams come true. Whoever you are. They're not as raw as they look. Somehow nobody
remembered to tell us that Leona Lewis had been working with
professional voice coaches for a full year before she went on the show.
The only thing she didn't have was a recording contract. And there's really no guarantee of any kind of longevity.  There is a respectable career for musicians in the Long Tail where they can grow their audience slowly and keep them. But this year's finalists will discover that Cowell will take back their audiences to feed them the new contestants within a matter of months. Their skillset and material aren't individual enough to allow them to start with a new audience. And in spite of their fame they won't have access to the media channels to attract the attention of a mass audience for themselves.

Its interesting to note how PR seems to be flourishing in a climate which is toxic to journalists who with falling circulations are losing their jobs in droves. So where is all the content coming from? Well from the citizen journalist/auteurs who forward, link, comment and parody these short lived celebrities. On top of these are the PR agencies and publicists whose press releases and leaks furnish the basic storylines. You really don't need many journalists to recycle these. Particularly if these journalists were trained to check sources and matters of fact. Storytelling rags to riches doesn't need journalists. You just need a format and some ingenious variations. We know this – because there have been enough exposes. But this just adds more tension to the Cowell backstory until we get bored with it.

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