In the past two weeks Fox networks will have debuted season premieres of two signature reality competition shows that completely changed the paradigm and now are facing the same inherent problems: “American Idol” and “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“American Idol” changed the way we look at music and musicians; there’s something profound in that we have less inherent respect for musical talent because of the singing competition genre that “Idol” launched. After growing stale with the same cast of judges for years they’ve revamped the show to focus much more on the revolving door of judges instead of mocking those with inflated ideas of their musical talent. It was a staple of the show for years to have entire episodes mocking people who can’t sing trying out for the show, something that’s lessened over the years, and now “Idol” is facing more competition for a dwindling talent pool.
We don’t respect the ability to sing as much because becoming famous with it isn’t nearly as difficult, or as lasting, as it once was. The winners of the show have a brief stint of fame but being a known commodity as a musician is tougher. There’s a reason why there’s a handful of “Idol” winners have had enduring fame … and the rest can be lumped in with any number of musicians with known libraries of worth but a small fan base to work with. Winning the show is still an accomplishment, as for one brief moment you’re the most famous musician in America to one of the industry’s key demographics, but maintaining that level of fame by accomplishment thereafter is nearly impossible. More “Idol” winners fade to musical obscurity than they do top of the charts consistently; the fact that the Top 40 isn’t that much more talented than what pops on the show regularly tells you everything you need to know about both the show and the music industry writ large.
Outside of the first couple of show winners like Kelly Clarkson, it’s a labor intensive task to find out which “Idol” winners have consistently had top albums and tours. “Idol” is a good promotional tool, and one that still garners good ratings, but it’s not a star-maker anymore. It’s more fun to see who wins now than to see them record an album of originals afterwards; show winners have become disposable commodities that don’t do much once they’re off television. It’s just a really decent talent show that’s been copied … after being a copy of a British talent show. And outside of this one little facet, that of rip-offs and variants on American television in “The Voice” and “X-Factor,” you could almost be talking about “The Ultimate Fighter” in a lot of ways. “TUF” is still a relevant show but it’s not the world champion making vehicle it used to be in the same way “American Idol” isn’t a king-maker of musical talent.
“The Ultimate Fighter” launched MMA into the fringes of the mainstream by making it more accessible to the masses. The perception of guys training to fight in the cage was changed because they were humanized; we could respect them as athletes because we got to see them as people, not just prizefighters. Over the years the show has grown stale, however, because the talent has dropped (among other things) to the point that only a handful of fighters from the first couple seasons have managed to win titles and be relevant in the company. When you look at the Top 10 of nearly every division in the UFC there are not a lot of fighters who are TUF winners still there. Jon Dodson is a top five fighters at flyweight and won the show’s only bantamweight season (TUF 14), Nate Diaz (TUF 5 winner) just fought for the lightweight title, Michael Bisping (Season 3) is a fight away from Anderson Silva in the middleweight division, Rashad Evans (Season 2) and Ryan Bader (Season 8) are Top 10 at light heavyweight and Roy Nelson (Season 10) slots in the Top of the heavyweight division.
So far Matt Serra, Evans and Forrest Griffin are the only ones to have actually tasted UFC gold, as well, but neither of the three successfully defended their titles. Since Nelson the talent levels on the show haven’t been anywhere near the talent levels coming in to the company directly. For a show that’s dedicated to making world champions, as Dana White likes to say, the list of fighters moving from the show into elite status has been small at best.
For most fighters on the show the finale is as far as they will ever get; regional MMA shows are littered with TUF rejects for a reason in the same way you can go to a state fair and see someone like Bo Bice or Taylor Hicks perform in front of their handful of fans remaining. Remember when the “Soul Patrol” was supposed to be the next big thing in music? Philippe Nover was supposed to be the next Anderson Silva, too.
When we look at the past couple seasons of TUF there aren’t many fighters that stand out in the same way the past couple “Idol” winners haven’t released massively selling albums. There’s been respectable numbers in the same way a lot of TUF winners are respectable fighters. There hasn’t been that great leap forward into contender status for anyone who’s won the show in recent years outside of Dodson, and even then that’s a misnomer due to his Top Five ranking in the division before any regular watchers of the show had heard of him.
The judges on “Idol” have changed to try and shake things up, hoping the ratings go up because popular singers like Nicki Minaj are on the show every week; much like the UFC which has brought on Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones this season to up the ante similarly in ratings. It’s why Brock Lesnar coached a season as well for season 13 and why a fighter’s star power comes into question when discussing who should and shouldn’t coach. “TUF” is in the same spot as “Idol” because it’s the last gasp at reinventing the formula without actually reinventing it. “Idol” is changing parts around and hoping for the proverbial water cooler buzz to grow by making it about Minaj and Mariah Carey getting into pissing matches as opposed to the talent available.
It says something that the bulk of the discussions by pop culture pundits have been about the judges and not the contestants in the same way “The Ultimate Fighter” has become less about who’s on the show as opposed to who’s coaching it. If “Idol” brought in people with talent in the musical industry to give good, sound advice to help contestants get better it’d be boring because those people don’t have the Q rating of someone like Steven Tyler (who got pedo-creepy on the show discussing teenage girls). Everything you need to know about the UFC’s signature show can be gleamed from it.