For a generation of television viewers, it must seem as if Simon Cowell invented on-air singing competitions sometime during the 1990s. After all, the current impresario of "The X Factor" built considerable fame and fortune in England with "Pop Idol" before attaining true legend status in the western hemisphere with "American Idol" in 2002. With 10 years of stateside success under his belt, Cowell shows no signs of slowing down and has engendered a host of imitators seeking to cut into his pie. In 2012, it seems that nearly every evening brings a new chance to watch unknown singing talent try to gain an audience on the small screen, and there are always more waiting in the wings.
But before you come to the ironclad conclusion that the genre is a product of this new century, consider that "Idol" and its ilk stand on the shoulders of countless predecessors. Some of them were giants, and some of them were only stepping stones, but they all made it possible for Cowell to ply his trade today. Here are a few of the on-air talent shows that line the halls of television history.
Much of the formula for today's successful singing shows can be found in this CBS classic, which ran from 1948 until early 1958. During that period, of course, the United States was recovering from the ravages of the 1930s Depression and the World War II in the 1940s, and our optimism was brimming. What better way to play on these emotions than showcasing a bevy of young talent that just might be destined for stardom? Building on his vision for hope and ratings success, Godfrey brought together "Talent Scouts" from across the nation and gave them the opportunity to showcase the singing prospects that they had discovered, with the winner of each episode being determined by audience applause. If this coach-against-coach scenario sounds familiar, then you're probably a fan of "The X Factor" and "The Voice," because they lean heavily on the idea.
Sure, the "Gong Show" was a haven for '70s kitsch and outrageous jokes for acts, but it also provided a bridge from the button-down talent searches of the '50s and the glitz of the '80s. While watching a shirtless man juggling rubber chickens while riding a unicycle backwards through a ring of fire (hypothetically) may not have inspired many viewers to reach for more in their own lives, there were some serious acts to be found amid the legions of Gong-worthy flops. Cheryl Lynn, Boxcar Willie, Paul Reubens, and Michael Winslow were among a few of the soon-to-be stars who graced the stage on Chuck Barris's brainchild.
Late on Sunday nights in the 1980s, just as Americans hunkered down for another week at work or school, Ed McMahon ushered us into slumber land with a dose of aspiring famous people from various reaches of the entertainment spectrum. While the list of category winners reveals that "Star Search" was clearly about more than just the singing, the tunes were a major attraction for fans and launched several big music careers. Among the more famous alumni are Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Sam Harris, Sawyer Brown, and Justin Timberlake. Think it's any coincidence that so many of these performers went on to forge ties to other singing competitions, including Aguilera's current headlining gig on "The Voice"? Not too likely!
This somewhat obscure, but popular, game show ran in various formats in England from the 1950s through about 1990. While it often presented a sideshow feel, it introduced several features that endure into the modern television era. In particular, the "Clap-O-Meter" gave an early method for audiences to voice their approval (or not) of an act. If that wasn't enough, at-home viewers got the deciding vote by virtue of their mail-in ballots. Maybe "Idol' should adopt that practice the next time it's looking for a revamp.
OK, so "The Ed Sullivan Show" was not really a talent show, but you hadn't really made it as an American entertainer from 1948-71 until Ed introduced you to the nation. From Elvis Presley to the Beatles to the Muppets, just about every really big act got a boost from a "Sullivan" appearance. The show provided an avenue for up-and-coming talent to perform in front of an almost limitless audience and set an example for star promotion that today's stalwarts have seized upon.
While modern television may be littered with hour after hour of singing competitions, the idea is not a new one. As with many of life's endeavors, today's TV bigwigs owe much of their success to the toil of their intellectual ancestors.
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