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.

Mimi White, “Going Through the Paces”
American Idol
International Idols
Idols Finland on MTV3
Idols History
World Idol

Image Credits:

American Idol

Please feel free to comment.


  • I’m intrigued by the notion that the differential pace of American reality television distribution abroad is (at least partially) related to economic imperatives relating to ancillary products. I wonder, however, given the inherently international nature of reality programming (American Idol, of course, starting in Great Britain before migrating to 26+ other nations), if there aren’t several other reasons why American Idol (and not Survivor or Big Brother–both international hits) challenges the existant distribution model for American television.

    Perhaps the “similarity and difference” of the program appeals to audiences abroad in a host of uniquely pleasurable ways. Does Idol’s representation of American class, race, gender (the current season splits the contestants into “boys” and “girls” groups), American capitalist ideology, and the “American Dream” offer audiences abroad perspective or insight into American culture, a view perhaps easily identifiable given its packaging similarity with domestic products? Do audiences compare and contrast performance, music, identity, and nationality through this particular program, and not others?

    How and why do Finnish audiences watch the American version of The Idol, and what are their pleasures in doing so?

  • I suppose a question related to Bryan’s but complicating it is whether any other “star-making” programs besides Idols Finland and American Idol are popular in Finland? There’s an interesting query there about pan-European identity.

    My main question, though, is about what Dr. White calls the “elegant balance between series and seriality” and whether the push to expand the (near) simultaneous audience for reality programming actually has to do with the re-emergence of event-based television, or the creation of mass audiences based on the presentation of a very perishable cultural experience. We keep reading that mass audience is fragmenting…is event-television a means to re-invent it on different terms?

  • Culturally unspecific

    It is curious that no other reality competition show warrants simultaneous broadcast in Finland. Perhaps it has something to do with how simple the show is. Survivor and The Apprentice contain more culturally-specific situations and dialogue. To me, there’s very little that’s culturally specific about judging people’s singing talent. Another reality show with very little cultural specificity is Fear Factor, though its appeal lies less in the competitive aspect and more in its immediate visceral impact, and there’s no ancillary product tie-ins.

    Still, there’s a “rags to riches” theme running through American Idol that seems culturally specific, as Bryan notes. I can’t help but wonder if audiences in Finland pick up on that. Are they the same working class demographic that they are here in the states? Or do they not read class into the show the way we do, simply watching to see people sing beautifully/horribly?

  • spelled out

    It seems pretty clear to me. If American Idol didn’t have ties in other media, like records, the show would probably take the same slow pace in Finland as every other reality show. The reason the other shows do not pick that same pace is because there is no incentive. Even with the idea of selling season box sets of shows, a viewer doesn’t need to see the season the same year it is played originally. The only stipulation is that the season is played in order of episodes. If The Apprentice was making new Hollywood actors to star in a made for tv movie, then the turnaround for that program might be quicker also, as the producers would want as many eyeballs watching the made for tv movie that might air world wide at the same time. I think the culture-specific representations of Survivor and other shows do not affect the pace at which the shows are broadcast elsewhere. If anything, culturally specific shows would be show at the same pace because of the topicality of them. A reality show that was filmed during 9-11 would not have the same emotional effect on people viewing the program a year later. It would still have impact, but in a different context. I tend to believe that most shows should be aired abroad relatively soon after the show airs in America. At the same time, I am not a big fan of reality tv and I feel as though Finland wouldn’t be missing out on anything if Survivor wasn’t syndicated over there. Even with that argument though, I do support American Idol being broadcast almost at the same time, for the specific reason that the industry is tied in other profit venues, such as album sales. This requires the simultaneous capture of people’s interest across borders.

  • Travis Wimberly

    Hit it on the head

    I think in these 2 sentences the author really hit the nail on the head as far as American Idol specifically is concerned: “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.” Idol in its own league, even in regards to other reality TV programs, because of its immense interconnectivity with the recording industry. Delaying its overseas broadcast by any more than four or five months would be hugely detrimental to record sales. Typically the winner of the program has their first record released within half a year of the completion of the show. By September of 2002, for example, Kelly Clarkson (Idol season 1 winner) had a top 10 billboard record with a single “A Moment Like This” in the #1 spot of the Billboard singles chart. For international sales of said records to be maximized, audiences in that area must already be familiar with the artist, having watched them already on numerous episodes of Idol, within the first month of the record’s release. If the show is just beginning its run in an overseas nation as the records hit the racks, many consumers will likely delay their purchase until they are more familiar with the talents and personality of the artist (even if they already know who ends up “winning” the contest). In the case of American Idol season 2, this faster pace of overseas marketing is/was extremely crucial, as not only did the winner–Rueben Studdard–enjoy reasonable record sales overseas, but in fact, the 2nd place contestant Clay Aiken (whose records on the whole have far outsold Rueben’s) also benefitted greatly from already having overseas audiences in touch with his persona as his record was released. If show had not been released overseas until a year after its initial broadcast, both Rueben and Clay’s records would have already reached and passed their peaks in regards to BOTH price and “spotlight”.

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