Thursday, July 12, 2007

Battle of the Network Karaoke Shows

[NOTE: The following article will also appear in my regular television column for WILDsound.]

John Edwards likes to say that there are two Americas. I would argue that there are also two network television worlds. In the scripted sphere, executives are more than willing to roll the dice on innovative, edgy ideas that take the medium in different directions. The last few years have brought us shows like "24," "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Veronica Mars," "My Name Is Earl," and "Heroes" that took traditional television concepts and pushed them into previously uncharted territory. Sure, once ideas proved to be hits, then programmers played follow the leader, resulting in a schedule last year that seemed to be limited to police procedurals, serialized dramas and soaps (with sitcoms as scarce as an atheist in the Bush administration). But, that didn't stop the networks from trying new things for this upcoming season.

Meanwhile, over in the reality television department, the executives are like the ultimate high school cheaters, copying off of everyone else's papers, with nobody daring to write down a response of their own. It's a two-part stealing process, really. Step one, you buy the rights to a successful European reality/game show (or remake an old U.S. one). Step two, once it's a hit, your competitors change it slightly to come up with their own versions of it. Dropping a new idea in a reality pitch meeting is about as well-received as dropping a bag of roaches in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant.

So, it should come as no surprise that NBC and Fox are currently engaged in a war over karaoke shows, which, of course, are the modern heirs to the classic game show "Name That Tune." NBC announced its version first. Fox then jumped in, declaring they also would dive into the karaoke waters, and would even premiere it before NBC launched its program. NBC, feeling it had to go first, rushed production (even when they had yet to choose a host) and introduced "The Singing Bee" to America on Tuesday, a day before "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" bowed on Fox.

I know what you must be thinking: Which one is the VHS and which one is the Betamax? Because, really, you are still probably scarred by having to choose between "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses," not to mention the "Sophie's Choice" horror of deciding whether to throw your allegiance behind "Nanny 911" or "Supernanny." Worry not, my friends. I will be happy to put your aching minds at ease.

The Great Karaoke Show Showdown of Summer 2007 is a first round knockout for your winner and champion: "Don't Forget the Lyrics!"

While "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is pretty good, the reason for the lopsided victory is that "The Singing Bee" is one of the ten worst television programs I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Ever. From top to bottom, and at every step in between, "The Singing Bee" is amateurish, grating and just plain doesn't work. It's the 20-car freeway pile-up of television programs.

The carnage all starts with the host of "The Singing Bee," former 'N Sync member Joey Fatone, who is smarmy and clueless to the point of distraction. It just looks like he has no idea what he's doing, what's going on around him, and why the tour bus hasn't come to get him yet. Fatone reminds you of the guy that is too much of a joke to be a wedding singer, but at other people's weddings, he will get drunk and insist on jumping in to play with the band. He displays a complete lack of personality. If Fatone was the best NBC could do in its rush to beat Fox onto the air, the network should have delayed production until a competent professional could have been signed. It's not like the bar is that high for game show hosts. Being first with this lox bringing down the entire vibe of the show just doesn't seem worth it.

As jaw-droppingly useless as Fatone is, it's not like he's getting a lot of help. NBC bills "The Singing Bee" as a "variety-competition show," but if Donny and Marie, Barbara Mandrel and Tony Orlando were watching at home, I hope they had a steady supply of anti-depressants, sedatives and Pepto-Bismol, because this is not the variety shows they remember hosting. The variety aspect, I suppose, is the presence of a large band and a rotating group of singers to perform the snippets of the songs, and a gaggle of scantily clad dancers to gyrate in the background. The result is more off-the-Strip Vegas than anything resembling the 1970s heyday of network variety hours. The band reduces every song, regardless of genre, to an in-your-face, Vegas lounge cheesiness that leaves you cringing. The singers, who over-emote and ham it up, don't help matters. And, the dancers, rather than providing some wholesome sex appeal, come off as kind of raunchy, making you feel a little dirty for watching. Like you've been caught at a lapdancing bar by the airport.

By now, you are probably thinking, "Wait, if this is a karaoke show, why are there singers in the band?" Excellent query. You would think it was something that NBC would have thought of. But, you would be wrong. You see, despite this being a karaoke competition, the contestants don't actually sing the songs. Rather, they mouth along with the words, looking incredibly awkward, waiting for the band and singer to stop. At that point, it's their job to jump in with the next phrase. Yes, on each song, the contestant sings about five words max. That's it. How is this karaoke?

With six contestants and almost no singing, there is virtually no chance for the guests to show any personality. This leaves viewers with no rooting interest (the heart of any game show) and, ultimately, bored.

The competition rules of "The Singing Bee" just don't work, leading to the proceedings being a drag. Six contestants are chosen to come up on stage, and the first four to get a lyric right go on to the next round. What if you go late in the rotation? Sucks for you. Not shockingly, the two women eliminated in the first round of the debut episode were in the fifth and sixth positions. So much for drama.

More importantly, the answers almost uniformly turned on whether the contestant got an article, preposition or conjunction right in the lyrics, making the competition feel more like a school assembly than something, you know, fun. For example, four contestants missed the lyrics to Bananarama's cover of "Venus" because they left out the "at" before "your desire" at the end of the chorus. Wow. With drama like that, who can turn away! Makes you long for your high school mathletes competitions.

When the six contestants are whittled down to one, the big finale involves the winner trying to win (insert drum roll) $50,000! Dr. Evil from "Austin Powers" must have come up with that amount. On a network that gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars on "Deal or No Deal" and "1 v. 100," it's hard to bite your nails wondering if that night's victor will be able to haul in the grand prize of 50 grand. It's as if there was directive from NBC to make sure that absolutely no element of the show could provide drama or hold an audience's attention.

There was obviously a lot of curiosity and interest in the concept of a karaoke game show. Tuesday's episode of "The Spelling Bee" drew 13.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated new show of the summer. My question is, after it turned out to be such a bore-fest, how much of the audience will come back?

If they're smart, they'll watch "Don't Forget the Lyrics!", which debuted the next day (Wednesday) and will run on Wednesday and Thursday nights. If you can get past the admittedly lame title, you'll find that where "The Spelling Bee" does everything wrong, the Fox entry does nearly everything right.

Wayne Brady hosts "Don't Forget the Lyrics!", and the show's format provides a perfect showcase for his upbeat enthusiasm and love of singing and dancing that he displayed for years on "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" (Apparently, he has a thing for shows whose titles end in punctuation marks.) Where Fatone is stiff, smarmy, off-putting and boring, Brady is warm, fun and engaging, knowing just when to get involved in the action (in the first episode, he pulls a guest out of the audience to join him in singing and dancing back-up for the contestant when she sang the Jackson 5 hit "ABC"). He's part tour guide, part party host and part cheerleader, making sure everyone is having fun.

Nothing about "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is really original, but the show's format uses game show conventions to keep the drama up and viewers involved. A single contestant plays at a time, making a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" style trek from low-value songs (you start at $2,500) up to a $1 million dollar lyric. Just like "Millionaire" and its progeny ("1 v. 100," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?", etc.), three helps are available if the contestant has trouble with a song. And, like those shows, you have the option after each round of walking away with what you have or risking it by going on. Like "Deal or No Deal," two friends and/or family members sit on stage (one of the helps is asking them). These game elements may be recycled, but they are used so often for a reason: They work. They produce drama and keep viewers interested in the action, wondering if the contestant will blow a ton of money or win a fortune (rooting for one or the other, depending on whether the person is likable or not).

The creators of "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" also made some smart decisions about the game's format. There are categories of songs for the contestant to choose from, and within each category, the singer can choose one of two songs to perform. This element also keeps you interested as you root for the singer to choose the hit you want to hear. And, most importantly, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" realizes that it is a karaoke competition. As a result, once the music starts (the band is subtle, ceding the spotlight to the contestant and never drawing attention to itself, which is a very good thing and a lesson the band on "The Singing Bee" could stand to learn), the singer croons along, following the lyrics on the giant in-studio message board (the words are also superimposed on the screen for the viewers at home). We watch the guest sing a good part of the song before the band stops, and the words disappear. It's then up to the contestant to fill in the next four or five words (indicated by dashes).

The "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" rules work because we want to see the guests sing, equally hoping for them to be good or horrible. We get to enjoy their energy, awkwardness and/or talent, as the case may be, and wonder to ourselves if we could do better. The filling in of the lyrics is natural, because the guest is already singing. And, the answers less frequently turn on a missing "and" or "at." It's a better test of whether the singer knows the words. Simply put, it's just more fun.

The format lets us get to know the contestants and gain a rooting interest. For example, in the first episode, we learn that Katie, an adorable, spunky grad student, likes to knit and study bugs, and if she wins money, she will use it to buy a giant microscope and an ant farm. Because she is required to sing the whole songs, she is able to get comfortable, dancing along, in way that the contestants in "The Singing Bee" never get to do. You are brought along on her journey and care more if she gets the lyrics right or wrong. When she was terrified that she might have gotten one of the words of the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" wrong, I found myself a bit tense during the inevitable pause for effect before the correct answer was revealed (she correctly got the line "and they cross the floor," whew).

In the end, it's the money -- what can be won, and what can be lost -- that lifts "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" above its NBC counterpart. (Well, that and the absence of a fun-sucking host like Fatone.) The show provides the same moments of drama and tension found in games like "Deal or No Deal" or "Millionaire." The money element provides the structure that keep you around to enjoy all the singing.

The only thing that interrupts the drama a bit is that the show feels like it was supposed to be an hour long, but was chopped into two 30-minute installments after it had already been shot. Katie was the contestant for the entire first half hour, and yet she only got about two-thirds of the way up the board. I suppose that works to bring you back the next episode, but it just felt abrupt. Of course, that's just a quibble. While certainly not new or innovative, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is good piece of fun entertainment, something "The Singing Bee" cannot come close to claiming.

So there you have it. "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is the clear, decisive winner in the battle of the karaoke game shows. The clash should teach networks two important lessons: Don't rush shows onto the air, and never hire a host whose only claim to fame is "singing" in a boy band. No good can come from either of these courses of action.