Friday, June 24, 2005

I Remember Them

There's a significant difference between British TV and American TV - and here I'm not talking about quality. Viewers on both sides of the Atlantic give producers on the other side of the Atlantic too much credit for their shows. American audiences get to see the best shows that the British produce and rate it better than American TV while British viewers are more likely to rave over American shows and pronounce that British programmes are crap. No, to my mind the big difference between British and American television is that the British are more willing to try different things. American networks seem to think that there are only four types of show that can possibly be on TV: dramas, sitcoms, reality shows, and news magazines (and there wouldn't be reality shows if the British and Europeans hadn't had huge successes with them first). Don't even get me started on the degree too which American producers limit the field in those genres.

The British, on the other hand, tend to look at things a little differently. True, there are dramas, sitcoms, reality shows and news magazines, but the British networks go a little further. They do shows like Ground Force (a gardening show), Changing Rooms (a home renovation show), The Antiques Roadshow (an antiques valuation show), and Top Gear (a show about new cars) in prime time on network TV. They do game shows - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and The Weakest Link are still popular in Britain (in fact Ann Robinson recently recently provided her own voice for the new Doctor Who in her Weakest Link persona). And they do music. Four of the five major British Networks - BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and Channel 4 - have at least one music show. And we're not talking about something like American Idol (which originated in Britain as Pop Idol) either. Top Of The Pops and Later with Jools Holland are long running series that feature fairly major artists. The Beatles appeared on Top Of The Pops around the time of their first American tour, and Mick Jagger was on the show much later. The list of people who appeared on Top Of The Pops is staggering. Later With Jools Holland is a more recent show but it still has an impressive guest list.

The point is that neither of those shows would be on American network TV. About the only program that shows musical acts is Saturday Night Live. I don't know what it is about American network executives but they seem unwilling to do musical shows. Maybe they believe that they won't get the ratings or that the various acts will want too much money. Or maybe they think that this is what MTV was created for. The only music show on network TV in the United States is American Idol where the performers are wannabes - safe wannabes. Give the show credit, ratings are incredible. But although CBS tried reviving Star Search, no other network has really attempted to do a show that was primarily music. At least not until this summer when NBC brought us Hit Me Baby One More Time. Naturally it's imported from Britain, complete with host Vernon Kay. It's only on for five weeks which is two weeks more than it was originally set for thanks to ratings which apparently surprised NBC's network weasels, although they been slipping each week.

Still It's an interesting experiment. The show takes what the network flacks call "veteran hit makers" (and many viewers call one hit wonders) and has them perform one of their old hits (or their one hit) and then in the second half of the show has them cover a more contemporary song by a current artist (usually). Before the second song there's a "what are they doing now" segment - Thelma Houston has grandkids, Greg Kihn has written five novels, Billy Vera does voices for commercials and supplies material for compilation albums from the 1940s and '50s. The performers are in what initially appears to be a large club but is probably a large TV studio with plenty of floor space for fans, most of whom look as though they might have been conceived to some of this music. At the end of the episode there's a vote by the studio audience which determines the "best" performance. That act wins a $20,000 donation to a charity of their choice.

The typical route for a musician who has a hit, or even several hits, is a short roller coaster ride with three stages. Initially they take any gig that will pay them a little money living on credit in hopes that someone will take notice. Then someone does takes notice; they get a recording contract and do a song that touches people in some way. And then, because they can't make lightning strike twice, they're back to taking any gig that will pay them a little money, trying to get back on top until they finally realize that they aren't going to be back on top. If they're smart they didn't spend the money they made with their one hit on sex and drugs. From the look of most of the people on Thursday's episode, they did. Certainly Glass Tiger looked as though they don't have to worry about their credit rating or having their Ontario homes and lake properties repossessed. Did the years take their toll? Sure. I'm not sure that the voices were quite as good as when Thelma Houston and Club Nouveau were actually having their one hit, and Glass Tiger looks as though they haven't been missing many meals - or skipping the carbs for that matter - but they all look better than Keith Richard (of course most corpses look better than Keith Richard). So yeah, most of these acts hear themselves on the oldies stations as they do their morning commutes, but it's good to see and hear them today. I don't really care about the competition aspect, but it's original to the British series and if making this into a reality show is what it takes to sell the concept to an American network so be it.

This summer has given us two concepts - Dancing With The Stars and Hit Me Baby One More Time - which have been slotted into the "reality" series ghetto but are significantly different and dare I say it original. What I really hope is that ratings for Hit Me Baby One More Time will be strong enough that some visionary at an American network will decide that popular music will make for good network television. It doesn't necessarily have to be the big names but perhaps a mix of big names with the young up and comers - the possible one hit wonders twenty years from now - would work. But of course the American television industry doesn't have space for visionaries, except in the summer.

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