Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Singapore Idol and Singaporean Attitude

The following is written by our favourite Singaporean Mr George Lim. He could be Mr Lim Heng Chye, and I would like it to be that way. And somehow, I agree with him. It is a slippery slope! Noooooooooo...

Reinvent Singapore Idol talent hunt

It is time the Singapore audience spoke up to the organiser of Singapore Idol for exploring other methods of talent scouting among youth. Singapore Idol epitomises talent but confines it to singing and dancing. Is that all there is to talent?

It has been several years since Singapore's entertainment industry aped American Idol, which is showing signs of audience fatigue in the West with the same theme year after year.

Nothing refreshing has been added to its predictable agenda. Thousands of young and impressionable people queue to audition, only to be mocked and dismissed by judges who inevitably favour the typical 'idol' image.

I notice the same humdrum rituals by participants in every show here. Perhaps MediaCorp, the organiser, can be more creative rather than drone on with the same script year after year. Where is the value add and creativity?

Singapore is made up of many races, cultures and religions. MediaCorp should consider the need to pull in a greater crowd of viewers who are well-travelled, well-read and intelligent.

Do we want the young to seek worldly fame solely via song and dance? Or should we aim for meaningful programmes that focus on other skills as well?

Some refreshing tips can be taken from reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway (which focuses on fashion design) and the Ninja Warrior obstacle course. These draw throngs of appreciative viewers on a global scale.

I urge programme directors here to deliver new, original and bold themes to satisfy an audience that is increasingly sophisticated and spans all ages and income levels.

George Lim

George Lim talking about diversity? What is happening to this world? Is this his new year resolution? I hope so.

Interestingly, in raising the criteria of singing and dancing in the past couple of Singapore Idol seasons, I notice something peculiar. In the first seasons of Singapore Idol, the show was often communicated to the audience as a show on talent, mostly singing ability and that "x-factor". The singing part has often been stressed by the judges and the host, especially when the show threatened to be a farce when you had, in the first season, Jerry Ong with a limited vocal ability but strong voting contingent (he thanked the god of the Christian religion on national television by the way), and in the second season, you had Joakim Gomez and Paul Twohill making the top 5 because they had the personality and stage presence respectively, qualities that overshadow their singing ability. Of course, Ken Lim nailed the final nail onto Paul Twohill's coffin by selecting a horrible song for him to sing, Adam Sandler's "Grow old with you".

Rightly and deservingly, Taufik Batistah and Hady Mirza respectively came up tops in the competition. Malay guys, one bad-boy persona and one boy-next-door persona, able to sing soulfully, and being relevant in an industry where pop music has been desecrated by urban music, R&B and a bit of dance.

And out of no where, we got Sezairi Sezali, obviously not of the same musical mould as Taufik or Hady. Taufik's a talented performer, Hady lets his singing do the talking, and Sezairi, well, is this skinny lad who did what smart musicians do - he adapts.

The judges, for the first time, justify the selection by saying that Sezairi is a talented musician. Wait, isn't Singapore Idol a singing competition as professed in the earlier two seasons? I guess they have to say what they said to salvage the Singapore Idol franchise.

As a musician myself, I look forward to Sezairi incorporating more guitar into his music. Now that he would have access to music executives, old fogeys who only go where the money is (which is anything R&B and guitar-less these days), he should seize the opportunity to make some decent music, and in doing so, I believe he will pave the way for local guitar-driven band music's development.

George Lim is right (that took a lot out of me to say). These reality shows and contests are predictable, but despite waning interests, they still rake in the money. A show like that seldom goes bad or wrong. It is so mainstream, so prime time, so national, that it already has what it takes to be successful.

Of course, being George Lim, the problem/challenge here is seen in isolation because attention is focused on the producers and programme directors (and their implied lack of creativity). You forgot to note that Mediacorp is struggling with viewership, as they self-destruct with lack of talent and wither away in the face of other entertainment alternatives (i.e. the internet, video streaming, cable television). We pay our television licenses to help our industry, but we end up getting more charity shows on television demanding more money.

I agree with George Lim (ouch, my brain) that we should adapt and localise some popular reality television and contests. Ninja Warrior would be a good start. Given how the newspapers complain about Singaporean youths being unfit and all, we can have a Ninja Warrior, so that more will be drive to train. Unfortunately, since we are discussing localisation and culture, we must note that ours is a culture of apathy, rationalism and self-conscious pride. So, which Singaporean will actually find the time to do something on national television and risk being humiliated?

That is why during the Singapore Idol 2009 auditions, we saw a majority of Malay hopefuls. They were more game and had more fun. The ethnic Chinese are more scared of "losing face", because they are probably too aware of the nature of the show. Moreover, given our respective pop culture influences, the ethnic Malay Singaporeans are more savvy with singing (with) soul, a key ingredient to being a pop star these days. Unfortunately, not many Chinese Singaporeans are able to vocalise soulfully.

While we need to adapt and localise certain tried-and-tested programmes (Mediacorp always does that, right? They follow the money and don't take risks. This is part of the ass-covering culture we have in Singapore), we need to consider the cultural situation Singaporeans are part of. Programmes should connect with local viewers, and to connect, we need to have a critical understanding of the cultural competencies we have.

Every time Mediacorp, production houses and this mysterious entity called "network" conceive of a creative programme, they'll start to dumb it down, because they want it to be commercially viable to the mainstream. How do you capture a majority of viewers in a country that is multicultural, multireligious and multi-valued? You have to dumb it down significantly to make the show appealing, and unfortunately, they overdo it, throw creativity and their brains out the window, and the show starts out with no appeal at all.

Singaporeans are already watching cable and internet streamed videos, at least there are proportionately more ethnic Chinese (English-speaking ones) doing so, since they have no connection whatsoever with Channel 5.

As for the Mandarin-speaking ethnic Chinese and the Malay Singaporeans, they do tune in to Channel 8 and Suria respectively on occasion. And Mediacorp will often shamelessly plug programmes from another channel on the local channel these people are watching. Maybe this is the luxury afforded to a monopoly. Nevertheless, that is how we hone a small morsel of local identity and sense of belonging, believe it or not. Of course, that is not the only factor, as we need to consider minority solidarity, among others, too.

Producers often talk about this entity, called "network". They mention "network" without any articles, "a" or "the". For example, "Ah, the script's too edgy. Network won't approve," or "Dark skinned Indian guy cannot be lead on a Channel 5 show. Network won't like."

I believe "network" is all about making money. Having viewership and retaining it always has a commercial side to it. They may be torn wanting to balance their money-making interests with the entertainment interests of a diverse Singapore. Plural programming, wherein shows are made specifically for different segments of the Singaporean population, is never viable. Given the lack of advertising, talent and obviously smaller (but loyal) viewership. It still boils down to money.

I believe that if advertisers invested in local programmes, we wouldn't be paying for the farce that is television license.

There are many stakeholders involved in this industry, and our fingers should not only be pointed at and unforgivingly stuck into the orifices of programme directors and producers. Advertisers are losing confidence in local programming and seeking other avenues of marketing/advertising such as the internet, cable channels, guerrilla marketing, flash mobs and other innovative and non-traditional ways.

George Lim already acknowledges our audience have become more sophisticated (which means they should be more open-minded to diversity too, huh?), but unfortunately, that provides an insufficient force to change the industry and how we receive our entertainment, simply because it figures as one piece in an elaborate money-oriented jig-saw puzzle.

It is more than just demand (Singaporean audience wanting exciting programmes) and supply (Mediacorp giving exciting programmes), we need to consider the (new) media landscape as well as advertiser confidence too. I would advise Mediacorp and its affiliates to do what their doing, and take about the "dumbing downs". Stop thinking about how marketable or commercial the show will be at primetime. Be a leader for once, and not a slave to dollar (i.e. advertiser/investor money). The money will come because the audience will follow these programmes which are, hopefully for once, not dumbed down. Surely Mediacorp can afford to have 3-4 of such programmes on a weekly basis. Because so much money is saved from producing cheapstake food and cooking shows, isn't it?

We live in a country where a majority of Singaporeans want a job. If we can have a sizable portion of people who want to "be a star", we can definitely set the ball rolling for our entertainment industry. Someone has to be leader, and the rest of the stakeholders should be supportive - and I'm looking at Singaporeans, our local media, the internet and of course advertisers.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Include Big Brother