Talent shows have been a regular feature of the television landscape since the dawn of the medium, from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts to Star Search.
But it wasn’t until the launch of American Idol in 2002 that singing competitions became a national obsession, reflecting international trends that sent TV execs in search of inspiration from abroad, adapting the most popular overseas shows for American audiences.
Here’s our breakdown of the five leading examples of the genre — which ones are worth watching and which ones can barely be endured.
AMERICAN IDOL (FOX)
Premise: Wannabe singing stars belt their bleeding little hearts out to land a major label record deal and a contract with American Idol-affiliated management. No cash is explicitly offered, but the winner’s recording contract and post-Idol tour add up to a nice six-figure paycheck.
Host/Judges: Ryan Seacrest, he of the wholesome good looks and ubiquitous thousand-watt smile, has been the host since the show’s start in 2002. Fleeting judge Ellen DeGeneres and King of Mean Simon Cowell exited in 2010 and 2011, leaving original Idoler Randy Jackson to be joined by new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Both bring star power and decades of performance experience to the table to back up their rulings.
The Verdict: Sitting through the drawn-out auditioning process, with its specially selected croakers, is a drag. Still, Idol has become a pop culture staple and deserves credit for launching the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, and Adam Lambert, among others. And it still draws nearly triple the viewers of any of the other shows.
AMERICA’S GOT TALENT (NBC)
Premise: The Americanized version of the global Got Talent franchise, AGT isn’t limited to singers. Entertainers of all sorts — bands, dancers, magicians, comedians and more — compete to prove their schtick is worth $1 million and a headlining slot on the Las Vegas Strip.
Host/Judges: Nick Cannon (aka Mariah Carey’s babymaker) charms his way through a show mostly run by the duchess of all entertaining trades, Sharon Osborne, who has been AGT’s nurturing anchor since its second season. Soul patch-sporting Howie Mandel replaced hot mess David Hasselhoff in 2010; more recently, British judge Piers Morgan left for CNN and shock jock extraordinaire Howard Stern fills the position beginning this summer.
Verdict: The auditioning process has more variety and weirdo appeal than Idol’s, but it can also be, at times, more painful, and the only winner of any note in seven seasons is Terry Fator, the ventriloquist guy. (I know… who?) Not sure how Stern will change the dynamic, but I’m also not sure I care enough to tune and find out. Then again, they are holding auditions at the Mahaffey this April…
THE X FACTOR (FOX)
Premise: Originally created by Simon Cowell in 2004 to replace the UK’s failed Pop Idol, the British X Factor franchise has spread to more than 35 countries. Cowell quit Idol to launch the series in America last year. The X Factor is a singing competition open to both solo artists and groups, has no age limit, and each judge is assigned to mentor artists in one of four categories (including age, gender and group). The first season prize, a $5 million recording contract with labels owned by Cowell and Sony, went to Cowell-backed Melanie Amaro. You know her as the chick who sings at Elton John in that recent Pepsi commercial.
Host/Judges: Dreamy Welshman host Steve Jones is out. No news yet on his replacement for the second season, nor do we know who will join Cowell and L.A. Reid, and fill the seats left empty by recently-axed judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger. Rumors have varied widely from Mariah Carey to Fergie to Kelly Rowland.
Verdict: As the overhaul shows, Cowell wasn’t happy with how the first season played out. Glad he saw the light. I mean, when did Nicole Scherzinger have any musical credibility? Hopefully, he’ll choose better the second time around.
THE VOICE (NBC)
Premise: Based on The Voice of Holland, this show taps experienced vocalists looking for their big break. The multi-phase vetting process begins with a blind audition, during which the star-studded panel of coaches/judges must choose their teams of singers, often fighting over the same one, with the singer getting final say. Following some heavy-duty mentoring, the competition comes down to one singer under each coach facing off in the finale. The Voice winner is chosen solely by public vote, and the prize includes $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Republic.
Host/Coaches: Old-hand nice guy Carson Daly joins all-stars Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green and Adam Levine.
Verdict: Clearwater-based songstress Juliet Simms of Automatic Loveletter made a huge smash with her Voice showing, impressing three of the four judges and ultimately choosing a mentorship with Cee Lo. It was some very stirring television and I’m officially hooked.
THE SING-OFF (NBC)
Premise: The country’s best a cappella groups perform in weekly competitions, each one challenged to work within a specific musical theme without sacrificing their own personal style. The winning group gets $100,000 and an Epic Records/Sony Music recording contract.
Host/Judges: Blue-eyed hottie Nick Lachey doubles as host and sometimes guest on The Sing-Off. Three artists with musical chops — piano rocker Ben Folds, sweet singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, and Boyz II Men singer/producer Shawn Stockman — offer their analysis and choose the groups to make it through each round, with viewers ultimately voting on the Sing-Off winner.
Verdict: There’s nothing cooler than seeing what talented vocalists can do when working together with no instruments and a lot of imagination. It’s also cute to see Folds talk music, and his flirty interchanges with Bareilles add a nice dynamic to the judging as a whole.