Back to reality

Series one of The X Factor New Zealand was simultaneously the best and worst television show ever. Series two is on its way and all going well, it will be even better and worse.

It’s not due to screen until 2015, but I’m so excited that I’ve written a preview for The Spinoff and you should go and read it right now. It includes this masterfully constructed infographic:


The piece starts off with a gag where I pretend I can’t remember who won series one. After the article was linked on the official X Factor NZ Facebook page, all these people commented like, “Duh, it was Jackie Thomas!!!!” Oh, of course.

There are a lot of major reality shows coming to New Zealand television in 2015. As well as The X Factor, TV3 is also making local versions of The Bachelor and Grand Designs, and no doubt TVNZ will have some more to add to the mix.

A lot of people lament the golden days of the TVNZ charter in the ’00s, and remember all the quality programming on TVNZ7 (especially the book show). But guys, it wasn’t all like that.

Mostly, TVNZ fulfilled its charter obligations by making lots of cheap fly-on-the-wall half-hour reality TV shows. Some of them, like Neighbours at War and Piha Rescue, were successes (and let’s not forget the enduring legacy of Popstars), but there was so much crap in there as well.

I watched a lot of shows like this when I was making closed captions for TVNZ in that period. As well as property shows galore, there were series about health inspectors, the SPCA, dog shows, navy recruits, and troubled youth. Some of these might sound vaguely familiar, but others won’t because they were dumped in graveyard time slots, like 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. The series about the naval recruits, which was one of the most painfully boring shows to caption, ended up being canned after a couple of episodes, no doubt because it was so boring.

When National removed the TVNZ charter, all those crappy shows stopped being produced and TVNZ switched to making local versions of big-deal reality shows. Yeah, the My Kitchen Rules format comes from Australia, but as Morrissey once sang, this one is different because it’s ours.

And frankly, I would rather see a local version of The X Factor or My Kitchen Rules than watch a series featuring a council worker inspecting the grease trap of a Chinese takeaway.

Now there just needs to be a New Zealand version of Big Brother and I’ll be happy.

I know this much is TrueBliss

Amid all the coverage of whatever X Factor plot twist is the drama du jour, there’s one point that anchors The X Factor more firmly in New Zealand than any other imported television format: we started it. Popstars was a New Zealand show, which begat the Australian Popstars, which begat the UK Popstars, which begat Pop Idol, which begat The X Factor and that’s where we are today, bootcamps, mentors, deadlocks and all.

It got me thinking about the original New Zealand Popstars TV series. NZ On Screen have the full first episode and excerpts from the other eight episodes online, so I figured it was time to revisit this groundbreaking series from 1999.

Five girls and all the Lycra the '90s could fit
Five girls and all the Lycra the ’90s could fit

One big difference is the format. Popstars is a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The camera films the goings-on and there’s little sense that anything has been engineered for the cameras. A calm voiceover fills in a few gaps – and that voiceover style is still part of The X Factor (along the lines of “It’s day three of the auditions and so far the judges are not impressed.”)

Band manager Peter Urlich and label rep Mark Tierney supervise the auditions (they’re not even called judges) and are very nice to the contestants. After each girl auditions, the men thank them politely. There are no Cowell-like declarations of someone being horrible – even when the limits of talent are obvious. Of course, when the girls are out of the room, this doesn’t stop Tierney from making comments like, “Great personality, great body and can sing.”

There are a few crazy auditionees, but they’re not fussed over too much. The best is a girl who declares, “I said to them I’d be prepared to have my teeth straightened and breast implants if that’s what it takes.” I doubt the show’s budget would have stretched that far, meaning that finding good singers who were pretty and had good personalities was the cheaper option.

Urlich and Tierney get serious over the stationery
Urlich and Tierney get serious over the stationery

Rather than a dramatic pow-wow over a table full of glossy headshots, the two men have a scribbled list on a sheet of lined refill. They review the taped auditions, again with the blunt comments (“She’s relatively short, isn’t she?”)

The 500 auditionees are whittled down to a shortlist of 15. First up, they all go out to dinner to check out compatibility. Then it’s a proto-bootcamp. But rather than the tense, multi-day ordeal of The X Factor bootcamp, this is a workshop in a sunny church hall. The girls are given solo and group singing tasks and are spied on at lunch to see how they get on (Carly freaks out everyone by sharing a friend’s birth story). They also do some dancing, but the voice over reveals that this was an idea of the girls, rather than an official task. That’s right, they’re all making it up as they go along, even the contestants.

Eventually the final five have been selected. Most of them have the news broken to them by Urlich phoning them at home, with the moment captured by the camera crew. There’s none of the double-negative tricks (“I’m really sorry but it’s time to go home… and pack your bags because you’re through!”) that The X Factor uses to torture both viewers and contestants.

The girls are introduced, with Urlich idly observing that Erika is “the only girl in the group who isn’t from a single-parent home”. This would never happen in The X Factor. Rather than just being an idle comment from a judge, it would be a feature where the other four talked about their brave solo mums.

Ok, so that’s the process of audition to final selection. In The X Factor, that action makes up the first part of the series – auditions, bootcamp, judges retreats – with a talent show tacked on the end for the second part. In Popstars, all that is shown in just the first episode and a little bit of the second one.

TrueBliss look to successful overseas pop groups for a lesson in the power of merchandising
TrueBliss look to successful overseas pop groups for a lesson in the power of merchandising

The rest of Popstars was about turning these five girls into TrueBliss – rehearsing, recording, makeovers, media, music videos, public appearances, etc. The X Factor has a few behind-the-scenes clips but what we see is carefully planned. But by the time the live shows come along, the X Factor is mainly about performance.

Popstars really gets gritty, showing a full-on row between group members, and the tension when the first record detail falls through, leaving Urlich with no label and no songs. This stuff is entirely avoided by The X Factor, emerging only as tabloid rumours and gossip blog fodder.

Popstars shows that it’s really hard for a pop band to make it in New Zealand. The five girls all have day jobs to keep them afloat in the shaky early days, and corners are cut and favours are done in every direction. Sony’s managing director points out that even a hugely successful pop act doesn’t make a lot of money due to the relatively small size of New Zealand’s market. While Popstars openly acknowledged the uncertain fate that awaited TrueBliss, the X Factor’s narrative hinges on the idea that the series winner will be huge star. Hey, they could end up like American X Factor alumnus Chris Rene – a number one single and two top-40 hits in New Zealand, but never charting higher than No.100 in his home country.

By the way, were TrueBliss a failure? Well, their pop dreams might not have lasted as long as they wanted, but compare them to other acts who were in the charts at the same time, like these guys, this trio, this fellow or this group. The ex TrueBliss members are all doing well compared to their peers. And no one’s on the dole.

The transformation from Popstars to X Factor was gradual but definite. The Australian version of Popstars tightened things up, making it appealing enough to attract the attention of ITV executive Nigel Lythgoe. By the time Popstars launched in the UK, the format was similar but the drama was intensified, with Nigel pioneering the “Mr Nasty” judging style.

The big moment came when Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller saw the appeal of Popstars and combined it with the traditional television talent show format to create Pop Idol. This also starred his pal Simon Cowell, who took Mr Nasty judging to a whole nother level.

Pop Idol added live performances and eliminations, as well as the allure of audience voting. Unlike Popstars, the selection of the winner (and it was just one person rather than a pop group) was chosen by the audience.

While American Idol has been running for 12 series, there were only ever two series of Pop Idol. UK Popstars similarly had two series, with the second series expanded into Popstars: The Rivals (a boy band versus a girl group) and – inspired by Pop Idol – the group members were chosen by a public vote.

Both Pop Idol and Popstars were soon swept away in favour of The X Factor. Pop Idol judge Simon Cowell decided he wanted his own series so retooled the format into The X Factor. The point of difference being that The X Factor allowed groups to enter and the judges also served as mentors for the contestants. It also meant that less-than-amazing singers could be selected for the final 12, with the idea being that the show would polish them into fine performers.

Fine feathered fiends
Fine feathered fiends

The X Factor actually seems a lot harder for contestants than traditional TV talent shows. In the olden talent show days, performers got to sing songs of their own choice, tunes they were very comfortable with. With The X Factor, contestants are given songs to sing and are also critiqued on their appearance and personality.

Whenever a talented singer with little personality is voted off The X Factor in favour of a less talented but charisma-filled act, that’s the legacy of Popstars. Only in Popstars, they were much more open about the need for personality and appearance as well as singing talent.

But while The X Factor format is the current hot thing, it turns out there’s still a sneaky place within it for the old Popstars format. In the seventh series of The X Factor UK, a five-piece pop group was assembled by the judges from rejected soloists. A year later, ITV screened a documentary looking at this group’s life after The X Factor, dealing with the adventure being a few pop group, recording, videos, fame, the media fans – all standard themes from the original Popstars series. The group was (you might have already guessed) One Direction, a secret Popstars-style band within The X Factor.

While the live shows of The X Factor are brilliantly entertaining (especially the nailbiting elimination episodes) and are a million times better than the awkward talents show of New Zealand’s television history, I miss the warts-and-all behind-the-scenes glimpses of the difficult world of pop that the original Popstars offered. The bad dye jobs, the fighting, the dodgy deals, the dubious wardrobe and the true moments of bliss.


This is not America

After episodes of the X Factor screen, I like to go to their Facebook page to see what everyone is complaining about. And there are complaints. After the first bootcamp episode, there were two very New Zealand-specific moans, both involving Stan Walker.

Complaint 1: That Stan says “youse”, which is not proper English

Youse might not be formal English, but there’s nothing improper or incorrect about it. Millions of people around the world use youse, particularly in Ireland, parts of England, New York, Philadelphia, Australia and New Zealand.

English is an imperfect mongrel language and sometimes the “you as singular and plural” thing doesn’t work. If I walk in a room with five people in it and say “I want you to come with me,” do I mean everyone or just one person? If I said “I want y’all/yiz/you lot/yous/you guys/[your local variant goes here],” it would be clear what I meant.

Even though “youse” is in common use in New Zealand, we’re not used to hearing people say it on the telly. It sounds weird, so people think there must be something wrong with it. But it’s just another boring old way of expressing an unambiguous plural of you.

Complaint 2: That a judge sat on a table

Near the end of the second Boot Camp show, the judges were huddled around their table, choosing their favourites. Judge Mel could be seen sitting perched on the table. Oh no! Why didn’t Stan tell her off?

In any other X Factor production, this would not be an issue. But in New Zealand, many people – both Maori and non-Maori – consider sitting on a table to be tapu. It’s considered very bad form to put your bottom on a surface where you could also eat.

In this modern world of Spray n’ Wipe, one could argue that the practical reason for this taboo isn’t an issue anymore. But traditions stick with people and seeing someone on the telly sitting on a table is very upsetting for people who’ve been brought up to believe such an act is wrong.

It’s not the first time a reality show has got in trouble for this. In 2011 MasterChef New Zealand seated some contestants on a table. Since then they’ve put the back row of the masterclass on bar stools.

Maybe both these complaints have more in common than at first glance. They both stem from Stan doing something that violates a strongly held belief of some viewers. It’s wrong to say “youse”. It’s wrong not tell off your fellow judge for sitting on a table. There’s some logic behind both, but it’s more about the discomfort of seeing or hearing a tradition disregarded.

But I feel encouraged by this drama. There’s a concern that TV3 is just using an overseas format to produce cookie-cutter TV that doesn’t capture New Zealand culture. But the uniquely New Zealand friction the X Factor is causing in some viewers is evidence that something very Aotearoan is happening in this TV programme.

Suspension of disbelief

The New Zealand version of The X Factor is both the most glorious and most ridiculous programme on the telly at the moment.

We’ve just sat through the initial judges’ auditions, mercifully condensed into only four extended episodes over two weeks. (Compare and contrast with New Zealand’s Got Talent, who stretched their audition shows out into a gruelling five-week stretch.)

The auditions were as entertaining as any other version of X Factor. The weird thing is how so many viewers seemed surprised that, well, the New Zealand version was following the actual X Factor format. That’s right, we don’t get some sort of special exemption that rules out featuring those few awful singers, thrown in purely for entertainment purposes. “That’s not fair! My cousin waited for three hours at the pre-audition only to be told she wasn’t what they were looking for,” wails Bewildered of Whanganui. “They should have given her a chance instead of that angry guy!” Actually, just imagine that. Imagine if the judges’ auditions were full of adequate singers doing acceptable but not exceptional versions of “Superstitious”. Crikey, that would be dull.

There was also surprise at the appearance of classic X Factor sob stories. The mousy looking woman who perfectly belts out a Celine Dion power ballad. The grieving widower who delivers an emotional country ballad. The timid girl who is delighted when her idol joins her to sing on stage. They’re probably going to all get cut at bootcamp.

Besides, the inclusion of those segments don’t make the series any less New Zealandic. This one is different because it’s ours.

The May issue of Metro magazine has a brilliant article on the X Factor audition process. Greg Bruce goes behind the scenes, casting a cynical but insightful eye on proceedings. He notes that winning the X Factor isn’t exactly a guarantee of success, that “If you want to launch a successful music career, you’re still way, way more likely to do it elsewhere than on a televised talent show. It sounds so mundane and obvious to say it out loud, but X Factor’s success depends on contestants and viewers suspending disbelief in that reality.”

The article also looks back at the old days of NZ Idol and notes that the Idol contestants didn’t exactly become huge pop stars. Idol is a different to X Factor (Simon Cowell made sure of that) in that the final 10 contestants were chosen by public vote, meaning that lots of pretty teens with wobbly voices got through. And back then Idol didn’t have such a good reputation. Since then the world has come to realise that such X Factor alumni as Leona Lewis and One Direction aren’t evil incarnate, people less likely to dismiss the X Factor as career-ruining piffle. The X Factor isn’t a guarantee of a successful pop career, but it’s a significant foot in the door.

So from all who have passed through the judges auditions round, it looks like we’ll have a decent final 12. I don’t think we’ll see any contestants as entertainingly brilliant as Rylan or Jedward from the X Factor UK, but on the other hand, I think we’ll also skip having a Christopher Maloney. The fun thing is the process of getting down to that final 12, the lame-arse bootcamp drama and the scenic lame-arse judges retreats’ drama.

And that’s why the X Factor is so much fun. Maybe the winner will only end up being world famous in New Zealand (like 2011 X Factor US contestant Chris Rene), but while that first series is screening, we can pretend that stakes are high, that this is the real deal.

X marks the spot

The X Factor New Zealand has a FAQ. One question asks…

How will The X Factor winner be distinguished from other talent contest winners?

The music industry has changed since the days of shows such as NZ Idol.

Winners of The X Factor have long-running international careers – think Reece Mastin, Stan Walker, One Direction, Guy Sebastian and Chris Rene etc.

Simon Cowell has been developing this talent show format for years; The X Factor is the result of everything he’s learned from earlier formats.

So X Factor NZ is getting it straight: if you win the X Factor, you won’t end up like Michael Murphy, working in road gang, wearing a high-viz vest.

But let’s take a closer look at their hall of fame. Yes, Reece Mastin won his year in Australian X Factor, but One Direction only came third in the UK X Factor. Chris Rene also came third on the US X Factor, but has only enjoyed major chart success in New Zealand (weird, huh?) Guy Sebastian wasn’t even an X Factor contestant – he won the first series of Australian Idol (so ’00s) and was only on the X Factor as a judge. Ditto for Stan Walker – he won the final series of Australian Idol but is on the X Factor NZ as a judge.

For every one of these high-profile success stories, there are the winners who don’t do so well – like Matt Cardle, Random, Leon Jackson, Altiyan Childs and ol’ misery guts Steve Brookstein.

Then there are the ones who don’t win the X Factor still but manage to forge a decent showbiz career from (or in spite of) their X Factor experience, like Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd or my beloved Jedward. And I’m keeping an eye on the extravagant Rylan from the latest UK series.

That’s what makes a series of X Factor work – it’s not just the brilliant singers who deliver every week, it’s also the battlers and the weirdos, the ones who can’t cruise through on talent alone. And that’s why they call it the X Factor.