P.S. An Idol’s Pace
by: Mimi White / Northwestern University
This column is something of a postscript to the last one I wrote, concerning the differential paces of television. My comments then were triggered in part by the way American television series circulate (at least officially) beyond the borders of the U.S., often with a lag of at least six months, or even one or two whole seasons behind their initial U.S. airing. Sometimes, the DVD versions may be available before the programs appear on television. In this context, I at least implied that this was the case with all American television series.
Meanwhile, American Idol is currently showing on Finnish television. This is hardly surprising since so many American television programs, including American reality programs, are available on Finnish TV: America’s Next Top Model, Playing It Straight, The Apprentice (U.S.), Survivor (U.S.), and The Amazing Race have all been shown here. Even Cheaters is shown on Finnish TV. What is distinctive in the case of American Idol is that the version currently showing in Finland is the same one currently showing in the U.S., with only a one to two week lag.
Given the prevalent distribution pattern for U.S. television in Finland, the airing of American Idol 4 struck me as somewhat surprising. At first I thought it might be related to the Internet and the ease with which one can learn about who has been cut from competition by recourse to websites, official and otherwise; ready access to this information might undercut viewership. I quickly came to my senses and realized that the same sort of information would be available for any competitive reality program, even for any television show that had episode summaries posted on some website, which means that this would be the case for virtually any American television show. But only American Idol is showing the current season. The other U.S. reality programs on Finnish broadcast or cable stations (indeed all the other U.S. series that show here) are older programs.
Finland, along with some 20-plus other countries, has also had its own version of the show, Idols Finland, which started in the fall of 2003 and concluded in January 2004. The final results episode was the third highest rated television program in Finland in 2004, with some 1.6 million viewers (in a country with a population of about 5 million people). The highest rated television program of 2004 was the same one that typically draws the largest audience every year: the live broadcast of the Finnish President’s reception on Finnish Independence Day. Given the interest elicited by the Finnish national Idols, it isn’t automatically clear that the American variant would necessarily draw the same kind of audience or interest.
It seems that the differential pace of distribution for American Idol has less to do with television per se, or with television-internet relations, than with the pace of the music industry. American Idol can best maximize global sales for the release of the already scheduled, anticipated music CDs following the televised competition if the global audience can follow the show more or less at its American television pace. It isn’t of much use to the music label if audiences outside the U.S. only decide they are interested in the music a year after its initial release, when the CDs may already be in the cut-outs bin. In Finland, at least, this reduces the programming time lag to a matter of mere weeks rather than the typical months or years. This raises a host of issues not only about the ways television intersects with other media industries, but also about television’s narrative and dramatic structures, and how they coincide (or not) with other media.
American Idol logo
Unlike dramatic series, most reality series are planned with a finite number of episodes. In this they function like mini-series or limited run programs, although successful programs can generate multiple seasons based on duplicating the basic structure of the initial limited-run design with a new array of participants. The dramatic arc is defined from the outset, based on the number of episodes, programming plan, and structure of elimination. Viewers obviously care about the outcome of these programs — in large numbers for successful shows. For American Idol the extent of this interest is registered, among other places, in the weekly voting. The competitive structure, culminating in a final outcome, clearly provides one structure of ongoing engagement and pleasure. But the ending shares these functions of engagement and pleasure with the ongoing vicissitudes of the program; as such, the process is as important as the outcome. (If the conclusion was the primary or overriding source of interest and pleasure, DVD sales of competitive reality series would be beside the point.)
As a mode of production, programming format, and even as a “genre” (using the word in a loose sense), reality programs offer an elegant balance between series and seriality, and capitalize on attracting and sustaining audiences across similarity and difference. In terms of narrative and dramatic structures, this includes a fine calibration that embraces process and outcome, peripatetic events and conclusions, the unknown and certitude, continuity and closure. Reality programs fit into television flow in these terms. While this is the case for all television series, a successful reality format — a sequence of self-contained series — makes the structure even more explicit and scaleable. But these narrative and dramatic strategies, and the resultant modes of engagement they foster, don’t necessarily directly carry over into the economies of other media. And in the case of American Idol, designed around the coalescing of television and the music industry (and digital telecommunications), it apparently results in a shift in the pacing of distribution.
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