November 21, 2003 | Graham

Success incarnate

So Guy Sebastian is Australia’s Idol. Public opinion and quality can coincide. But am I the only one to have noted the irony that the man selected to be an “idol” is a practising Christian who thanked God in his victory outburst (I was going to say speech, but these guys aren’t paid to be articulate and generally aren’t)? Idols and God, at least for us monotheists, aren’t compatible, and from a Christian perspective, the worst sort of idolatory is to put a man on a pedestal – that’s the whole ironic tension of Jesus Christ, Superstar.
But then, maybe the secret of Sebastian’s success is that he seemed so little affected by the attention being heaped on him. I suspect it will be harder for him to keep his humility than it will be for him to keep his virginity until he is married (as he has apparently promised to do)!
My colleague Peter McMahon certainly shares this first opinion but also seems to believe that reality TV is a plot designed to hook people on consumer capitalism. This seems to me to be an example of cart-before-horseism. No-one forces people to watch this stuff. It is a successful way to make money because it works with human nature, not against it. It appeals to deeply entrenched drives– our semi-narcissistic curiosity about ourselves and our love of a competition – and combines this with a programme format which is very cheap to make. The result is compelling TV that is hugely profitable.
Reality TV is not a new format – the basic elements are there in quiz shows all the way back to Bob and Dolly Dyer’s Pick a Box, the show that first made a celebrity of Australian living national treasure, Barry Jones (and given his glorious career, who could cavill at that?). The innovation that shows like Big Brother and Australian Idol make is that they allow the public to decide who wins. It’s not up to Eddie Maguire or Tony Barber with their panel of anonymous experts, it’s up to us. You and me. Reality TV is a logical development of our attachment to democracy married to technological innovation. It does to quiz shows what talkback radio does to the interview.
It is also a good example of what a properly designed market can do. The format of the show dramatically cuts the cost of finding and recruiting good talent. How many gigs would “Dicko” have had to attend to find the range of talent that he has discovered off the back of an ad in the paper? And what would be the cost of going to all those pub and backyard concerts as he would normally have to? Then, if he found a likely act, how would he develop them into a worthwhile product? If they’re not there on their own, they will probably never be there, which is very wasteful of human capital when proper handling and coaching might be all they need to make it. Then, when he’s found the performer with potential his company has to spend a small fortune marketing them so that people will want to buy their records. All in all a lot of capital is spent up front for a very speculative return somewhere in the future.
The Idol format is brilliant in that by combining a TV show with the hard work of prospecting for talent it allows broadcaster and record company to share the advertising (and sms) revenues. This gives the record company a return up-front, handles the cost of initial marketing, puts the performers in an environment where they can receive expert coaching, instrumental backing and a sound studio that they would never otherwise have and takes much of the speculation out of the question of whether they will succeed. In fact, Australian Idol has probably produced 6 or 7 viable performers who may all have careers, many of whom in any other format would never have progressed beyond Karaoke.
Idol is also a demonstration, in a way that Big Brother and most of the other reality TV shows aren’t, that competition doesn’t have to be unfriendly, nor does it have to be a win-lose proposition. Shannon Noll would not be happy to come second, but it didn’t appear to ruin his friendship with Guy Sebastian, and why should it? One might be the idol, but they both probably have careers, and in the long-run who is to say which of them will be most successful. It’s often the same out in the supposedly cut-throat world of business.
Last night I heard Karen Brookes critically refer to Idol on Australia Talks Back as “manufacturing” a pop star. I don’t understand why this is a problem. If our species just did what came naturally we would still be tenuously scavenging around the African savannah. “Manufacturing” – a process which is really the externalization of knowledge into artifacts and systems – is what makes our species unique. Australian Idol is one incarnation of it. I’ll be watching Guy Sebastian, the Christian who looks like a Garden Gnome Budhha, to see just what sort of incarnation he turns out to be.

Posted by Graham at 10:51 am | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. guy rox so shut ur mouth

    Comment by me — November 23, 2003 @ 12:27 am

  2. Did you know that guy wrote a song for reality viewers? It’s about irony …
    You can Stalk comments on guy in Living Room
    Guy Australian Idol [Living Room]

    Comment by me, as in Jozef — November 24, 2003 @ 6:51 am

    Guy Australian Idol

    Comment by Jozef with link — November 24, 2003 @ 6:54 am

  4. Graham, you are making a rather broad and sweeping generalisation. The whole point of the Australian Idol competition was for Australian people to vote on the candidate they considered most worthy of a record contract. For many musicians, this is an unachieved dream. People should praise Australian Idol for allowing many young talented people to be discovered and choosing a man who is worthy of being the Australian Idol. Guy Sebastian didn’t not participate in the idol competition to become subject to your mockery, he did it to achieve his dreams. How would you like it if someone you never met commented that you would not keep your humility based on an uneducated and biased point of view? If you want to vent your own frustrations about insecurities, seek professional help.

    Comment by Maria-Kristina — November 27, 2003 @ 12:13 am

  5. Hmmm, isn’t blogging great. I’d never thought of this advantage, but a couple of comments here are a good example of how the “Intentional Fallacy” works (see for a definition).
    Just for the record some of the things that I meant to say, and obviously didn’t say successfully, were that I thought Australian Idol was great and I thought Guy Sebastian was great. I liked the way the show completely involved the audience in making the decisions. I also think it is possible that Guy can keep his wholesome self in the face of all the attention he is going to get, but that it will be really difficult.
    This essay isn’t meant to be a dump on Australian Idol but a defence, with some reservations.

    Comment by Graham Young — November 27, 2003 @ 8:22 am

  6. Hmm seems we may have a case of tall poppy syndrome once more.What is it with Australians, why can we be happy for the people that succeed in life. Fair enough you dont share his views or ideal, just dont put him down!! Love or hate guy he has an amazing voice and like every other Australian he has the right to chase his dream.
    As for the comment on his virginity, that was just uncalled for!! In a world so full of violance and hate we wonder where it all starts… just take a look at this email….it starts right here..within us!! Pick up your act guys and show a little love and respect!!

    Comment by Fallon — November 28, 2003 @ 11:09 pm

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