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Opinion: ‘Eurovision’ a fresh example of how to keep reality TV popular, honest

Conchita Wurst representing Austria, the winner the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, poses for a photograph with a trophy at a press conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 11.  Credit: Courtesy of MCT

Conchita Wurst representing Austria, the winner the 2014 ‘Eurovision Song Contest,’ poses for a photograph with a trophy at a press conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 11.
Credit: Courtesy of MCT

When “American Idol” premiered on Fox in 2002, the ratings boom opened up a new market for reality singing competitions on television.

Since then, a number of “Idol’s” mutated clones have popped up on the airwaves: NBC’s “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “The Sing-Off,” and Fox’s now-cancelled “The X Factor.” As saturated as the market already is, ABC has announced a new show, “Rising Star,” to premiere this summer (the format isn’t much different from its predecessors).

Though these shows still bring in millions of viewers during their broadcasts, they have seen ratings drop considerably in the last few years.

The initial appeal of the format’s boom was understandable: The shows take the power of a performer’s success away from record labels and puts it in the hands of a voting American populace. It’s democracy!

That theme is prevalent, too, in the waning popularity of the shows – all are rife with the same inauthenticity of politics.

Every few years, a bunch of well-groomed charismatic figures come out to shill for your vote as they fight for Congressional seats. They work carefully on their balancing act of reverence for American political tradition while trying to be fresh and new. They try to do the impossible: appeal to all the people, all the time.

That same vanilla flavor is causing similar disillusionment with “American Idol” and others. People can never agree on what constitutes good music, and these shows play it safe by not even trying. Unfortunately, playing it safe is a great road map toward mediocrity. They seem to have a motto of, “Don’t do anything offensive and our sponsors will be happy.”

The problem lies herein: There’s only so much bubblegum pop the people can stomach, and you can’t expect people to keep tuning in for the impressive vocals. If there’s something we should have all learned from the countless seasons of singing competitions, it’s that singing well isn’t a very rare gift. Lots of people can do it well, as evidenced by the never-ending rolodex of talent they keep throwing up onto the stage.

These shows have come to rely on instilling emotional investment in order to keep audiences coming back. There’s not enough musical substance there to maintain any lasting appeal, so instead the producers keep the audience hooked with touching sappiness — nice stories of how the contestants all have hearts of gold and how winning would help them care for their ailing parents, overcome their body-image issues or whatever lesser dramatic storyline the producers can contrive.

But here, too, there is a severe lack of authenticity, and we have learned to see through the exploitation.

If these shows need any advice on maintaining longevity, they need look no further than their predecessor that has maintained its popularity for more than a half century.

“Eurovision Song Contest,” a transnational competition, finished up this weekend with an end that had its audience engaged because it tapped into a genuine issue.

Rather than a bunch of singers fighting for fame, “Eurovision” pits country against country and song against song — and it doesn’t always play it safe.

Like American shows, emotional investment is also key in the appeal of “Eurovision,” but the drama doesn’t need to be sold by producers. In fact, “Eurovision’s” governing company, the European Broadcasting Union, wants to keep the contest about the music. The real vitality of the contest comes when that intent is usurped by the politics that control the outcome.

The winner this year just happened to be “Rise Like a Phoenix” by Conchita Wurst, the bearded drag persona of Austrian singer Thomas Neuwirth. After winning, Neuwirth used the platform to chide Russia for its anti-gay policies.

Obviously, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups lauded the event, but there was significant vocal opposition from anti-gay individuals. Such opposition would quickly be blacklisted in the U.S., but it wasn’t in Europe.

In a time where LGBT issues have divided Eastern Europe, Austria entering Neuwirth as its representative performer was a far cry from “safe.”

This isn’t to say “Eurovision” is a hotbed of musical excellence. It has all the same crowd-pleasing pop music of American shows, but its drama is much more compelling. Since its inception, “Eurovision” has always held some reflection of the social and political issues that cut across an ever-changing continent. There are fights of traditional vs. new, and countries often vy to give support to the entries of their political allies.

And that’s what makes it compelling. Producers don’t need to sanction this drama — they just create a forum that allows it to bubble up naturally.

It’s an example that American networks might want to take a lesson from. We have plenty of divides here we can deal with — instead, we gloss over them and create soft-edged caricatures of culture where country singers, rockers and popstars all get along.

It might have been a nice political sentiment, but President Barack Obama got it very wrong when he said at the 2004 Democratic Convention that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America.”

There are real divides of people in the country. Liberals vs. conservatives is a real one, and it isn’t contrived by pundits. You can go to a lot of places and find a lot of ‘anti-white male’ sentiment. You can find a lot of ‘anti-Mexican’ sentiment in others.

It might seem absurd to want such divides highlighted in a singing show, but this is just one example of how cultures can deal with its problems rather than ignoring them.

We have a tendency to silence those who say stupid or bigoted things, and it only ostracizes those already on the fringe of society.

But there is a lot of ugliness that hovers under the surface. Pop culture is a great avenue to deal with it. Make it palpable, and you can deal with it cathartically. As evidenced by “Eurovision,” it also makes great television.

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