Australian Idol has played musical chairs and had a good hard look at itself, writes surviving judge Ian ‘‘Dicko’’ Dickson
THIS year we’ve made some big changes. We’re getting away from the loonies, the ritual humiliation and the bickering middle-aged judging panel and really highlighting what the show should be about — aspirational Australians who want a crack at the music industry.
The fact is, in this business, you have to constantly reassess your strengths and weaknesses. Formats get old. They need refreshing.
I think Idol had become a victim of its own efficiency last year. It was so well-run that if anything happened that would jeopardise its smooth running, it was immediately batted away, quashed or killed. It’s supposed to be a reality show and we needlessly ignored some pretty interesting stories.
There was a story about Hillsong manipulating the vote. As far as I’m concerned, as a marketing executive, if I could galvanise 30,000 young Christians to buy an album in a single week, I’d use that. It’s a valid thing to do. I don’t know why we’d hide from a story like that.
But we’ve made the hard changes and we’ve taken a long, hard look in the mirror and Australian Idol will be a better show for it.
Monday’s results show will be completely different. Everyone justifiably got the s---s with it last year because it was effectively 55 minutes of television for five minutes of content. That’s an awful lot of padding. It was an awful show to be part of so I’m sure it was an awful show to watch. This year we’re all on the same page and it’s going to be a gripping part of the contest. We’ve stripped back the audition shows. I know people love the loonies, the crazies and the deluded goonies, but we’ll be into what is the heartbeat of the show — real contenders performing in front of a real live audience — within a week. It’s going to be all about the talent. The judges get more than enough camera time. We need to be present but not as overbearing as in the past. People say they love to see the biff between the judges, but ultimately that can turn into a crazy pantomime.
The judging panel was a fairly unwieldy, four-headed beast that became an unruly facet of the show. That’s been turned around because there are only three of us now.
I had a meeting with FremantleMedia, the producers of the show, earlier in the year and was told I’d be coming back. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that they had looked at replacing absolutely everyone on the judging panel, which I think is smart. I really do. If you value your business, value a brand, you have to constantly audit it to make sure it’s relevant.
And the market has moved on. The public have been allowed to get used to a whiff of blood in their nostrils. They’ve become a little blase´ about moments of ritual humiliation. It would be wrong to imagine that all you can do is become crueller or more devious. That’s not what the show is about.
AND so, there are now three judges this year. Mark’s gone. How do I feel about that? Well, mixed feelings. He’s not always the easiest person to work with at such close quarters. I found him a bit of a distraction at times. However, there have been times on this audition tour where we’ve all looked down the end of the table where Mark wasn’t and thought, ‘‘Oh no! He’s not there to give us some of his moon-man lunacy’’.
And we’ll miss him in the live studio shows when someone gives us a stellar performance and there is no ‘‘touchdown’’. I think it’d be awful to try to manufacture something out of thin air to replace it. For whatever it was, the touchdown was Mark’s and to transplant something else in there would be idiotic and I don’t think the public would wear it.
Mark was a victim of his own work ethic in many ways. He understood, more than anyone, that Idol needed big TV moments. At times he overplayed that and became a bit of a caricature. Mark flip-flops between being a happy-go-lucky guy and someone who feels down on life. When he’s in those black moods, Mark can be quite a dark person to have around.
Last year we had to deal with quite a few harsh realities, including the fact Channel 7 was throwing Kath & Kim up against us. It’s an entertainment superbrand in Australia, pulling 2.5 million viewers in our slot, a slot that we’d made our own and dominated for a few years. That’s hard to strategise against.
At some point you have to accept that maybe we’re fishing in a smaller pond. Idol still does good business for Ten but it was a bit of a shock. Mark used to get a little dark about that, when what was needed was a calm head. Maybe that’s a reason he was the one to go — he was a little too high-maintenance at times.
Why Mark and not us? Honestly, Marcia is really important to the show. When it gets a little bit feisty with the guys and a contestant is all at sea and devastated, Marcia is the life raft of nourishment and support. She was always going to be pretty safe.
OF THE three remaining judges, I have a lot of experience from a recordcompany point of view. It’s still second nature to me whether someone is going to be commercially viable or not. The show does live and breathe on that. It needs someone who can present the cold commercial facts.
So it was down to Kyle and Mark. And with Kyle being so firmly entrenched with Ten doing Big Brother and having the biggest breakfast
show in the country, I’m afraid Mark was without a seat when we played musical chairs.
I think he was hurt by the decision and had every right to be. I feel a bit self-conscious I’m still here because I was disloyal. I left for more money. I left because I believed my own hype. I thought I had more to offer. I was wrong.
I was left in a position where neither Seven nor my lot (management) could find a show for me that was going to work on that network and I was very fortunate that Ten invited me back.
But it doesn’t make me feel great about the fact Mark’s loyalty was rewarded with being axed from the show. I know we have to be adult about this and accept that it is a business and that at any given moment somebody is going to make a decision based on its best interest.
I’d have to say we (Dickson and Holden) are not friends any more, which is a shame. I said some pretty hurtful things when he left. (Dickson had said: ‘‘I’m thrilled to be not having his stupid orange face butting in all the time. I don’t give a s--- what he thinks. He’s off the show now’’). The truth is I was quoted from an interview that I should never have done. I had been out on a long, p---y lunch and I was drunk.
Now we’re going up against Dancing with the Stars— an entertainment juggernaut. They have a fantastic new host in Daniel MacPherson. He’s a terrific entertainer and it’s a great show. I’m a fan. But it may be stretching the cast this year. There’s about five big hitters, the rest are hardly household names.
And to take an institution like DWTS out of its Tuesday timeslot just to derail Idol is flattering. They obviously still see us as a potent force. We aim to prove that is the case.
I’d love to think in five years’ time that we’re still sitting here talking about what a pivotal year 2008 was and how we ploughed ahead and stabilised the ship. But who would know, we live in a fairly unsentimental environment these days. TV has its own cruel logic.
There’s no sentimentality with TV executives. If something’s not working it’s axed— sometimes mid-series— so I don’t think we’re a protected species.
THERE’S nothing really like Idol. Young, aspirational people getting up trying their best to entertain Australia every week. So You Think You Can Dance was fabulous, but who of us knows whether their crumping was spot-on or whether a foxtrot was well handled or a freestyle jazz dance was any good? That’s all really technical.
But most people will know whether they like their (Idol contestant) version of a hit song like I Believe I Can Fly or a Beatles tune. Most of us have a context for that. It’s something every viewer, whether they are eight or 80, can relate to.
Man with a plan: Ian Dickson believes Australian Idol became a victim of its own efficiency last year.
Picture: ANGELO SOULAS