Friday, October 25, 2002 by Steve Williams
There are some things you can always depend on in life. Night will follow day, Coronation Street will run forever, and every time BBCi asks users to send in their opinions on reality TV shows, dozens of people will immediately go “They are cheap and boring television, who cares about them?” The fact that they’re interested enough to comment on them would appear to answer that question. But enough people are fascinated by them, and Popstars and Pop Idol were both great programmes – expertly put together to keep you hooked throughout. Yet it seems that the backlash has now begun, and the main scapegoat is Fame Academy. And that’s just not fair, because I really like it.
Yes, the programme’s been overhyped – we could do without the CBBC programmes, for a start. And yes, the first show wasn’t that good. And yes, the update shows on Tuesdays and Thursdays are missable. But the Friday night editions are actually becoming a real treat. Comparing it to Popstars: The Rivals, which goes out on ITV1 24 hours later, the differences are huge. Popstars has found a winning formula that it doesn’t want to tinker with, hence we have interchangable boys and girls singing interchangable ballads, and every show is identical to the last. Fame Academy, though, is a real spectacle. Each week the performances are very different; the choice of songs means that each show has variety – they don’t all sing ballads – and they make the most of the big stage with dance routines and clever lighting and camerawork.
The Friday night Fame Academy format is actually very neat. The three students up for “expulsion” perform solo, and viewers vote for their favourites to stay in. But the other half of the show also has a purpose, as the remaining students all perform, and how well they do counts towards their “grades” for next week and whether they’ll be up for eviction. This means that all the students have something to play for every week, and the viewers can predict who’ll be next out the door. It also means that the criticism they get from the judges is valid and has meaning, as opposed to Popstars where they increasingly just mouth empty platitudes (Geri constantly referring to it being great that they’ve got this far is starting to ring hollow, because with the amount of contestants dropping out, pretty soon anyone who was better than The Cheeky Girls will have got through).
Furthermore, how the evictee is decided is also clever – the student with the most votes stays in, but which one of the other two also stays is up to the students, who each have to vote. Here, the eviction really means something – they know each other very well and therefore it’s a tough decision – and for the last two weeks, it’s been decided on the very last vote. This is a tension that Popstars can rarely match.
Musically, this show is good as well. Carrie Grant and Kevin Adams, the singing and dance tutors, may come over as a bit unlikeable on the show, but it’s obvious that they get results. The students are clearly improving week-by-week – take Nigel, who was abysmal in show one, but is now one of the best around. His excellent performance of Sex Bomb this week was all the more exciting because we remember what he was like earlier in the series, and that’s the great thing about it. Many of the others have real talent as well; Lemar has a wonderful voice, and Ainslie is a great performer – his rendition of Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile) in the previous show was excellent, because he sounded good and made it obvious that he was having brilliant fun while he was doing it. Some of the others are not quite so accomplished, but you can detect that they’re getting better as the run continues. This training means I’m certain that by the time we reach the final five or so, they’ll all be extremely polished and competent performers.
One criticism of the series is that, despite the fact that it went to great pains to emphasise that people with all sorts of talents were welcome, they all get taught the same way. Because there’s a full-time dance teacher, for example, it seems they must all learn how to dance – even when that’s clearly not the sort of road that they want to go down. It seems to put some students at a disadvantage, because they don’t similarly force all the students to play instruments or write songs. Even the prize – a showbiz lifestyle for a year – seems to be geared more towards the Robbie and Kylie-alikes, if only because you can’t imagine someone who sings plaintive acoustic ballads to really aspire to or enjoy that sort of lifestyle. But at least it does encourage variety and individuality, while Popstars, by its very nature of making a band, is attempting to mould them to fit a certain image.
OK, I’m not so much of a fan that I regularly watch the Tuesday and Thursday editions. The thing is, the Friday show is basically all you need – you find out about the week they’ve spent in the academy, you hear them all perform, and you find out who’s going. The midweek shows are just a bonus, and it’s pointless going on about the low viewing figures, because they’re opposite Emmerdale and so they’re bound to struggle (they’re also spoilt by a narrator with the dullest voice in the world, but that’s by the by). The Friday episodes are where it’s at, and the format and performances are so strong, it doesn’t even matter that the unlikeable Patrick Kielty’s presenting. Those who turned off after the first show – and even the staff and students admitted that the singing was rotten – are missing a treat, because it is now an enjoyable, exciting hour of TV. Frankly, I’m hooked.
If Fame Academy was shown on Saturday night ITV1, with Ant and Dec presenting, everyone would be watching it, talking about it, and remarking how exciting a format it is. Instead, it seems to be used as a target for everyone who’s sick of reality shows to slag off, when surely it’s boring, predictable Popstars that deserves that treatment. It’s a bit like Survivor vs Big Brother, but this time, the show that’s losing out really is loads better than the other. If you only watch one reality show this weekend, make it Fame Academy.