Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Public funds shouldn't line Simon Cowell's pockets

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Judge Melanie Blatt on the set of X Factor NZ. Photo / Supplied
Judge Melanie Blatt on the set of X Factor NZ. Photo / Supplied

If the X Factor website were a contestant on a TV talent show, it would face a humiliating exit in the first round, like one of those exuberant teenage would-be divas, howling tunelessly from the stage.

Covered in shouty capital letters and festooned with a thousand pictures of the judges dressed as if headed for a Halloween party in a Highland castle, the online home for The X Factor New Zealand is plain exhausting.

It's full of ads, too: for cars, for computers, for the casino, for Coke. And for hamburgers. The McDonald's promotion goes, "Tastes of America now available in New Zealand" - I'll spare you the capital letters - "America: now in our own backyard."

The X Factor might have debuted in Britain, but it has been perfected in the US and more than 20 other countries over the past nine years. Like the burger, it's now available in New Zealand, with the first episode screening on TV3 on Sunday night.

Like its quirkier Got Talent offspring, the X Factor is part of the huge music-and-TV empire controlled by Simon Cowell.

The advertising and sponsorship overload on the website is par for the course. This is one of the most commercially geared enterprises in mainstream television, dwarfing even The Block, the show in which every blade of grass seems to sport a logo.

Beyond the core televised programme, extra X Factor income is generated from the fingers of the audience, who pay to text to vote for their favourite warbler.

The programme, the appeal of which lies as much in the personal stories of the contestants as the traditional talent-show aspect, also operates as a giant public screen test. If the public love them, they'll very likely pay for their music, and the contract is already filed. That doesn't mean the contestants are being exploited, but for the kingdom of Cowell all the songs sound like this: ker-ching.

Well done them. The bit I have a problem with is that in the case of The X Factor NZ, there's another income source: the public purse. The one funder you won't find in the sea of logos on X Factor's technicolour yawn of a website is New Zealand on Air's. Maybe it's embarrassed by the association. Maybe the $1.6 million handed over is considered too piffling to warrant a nod to the funding agency, which is given by every other NZ On Air supported show's site I looked at.

I have no quibble with NZ On Air funding a mainstream reality TV talent show. And I'm delighted TV3 is staging The X-Factor NZ. I'll watch. Or I'll be in the room when it's on, at least. The why factor, however, is this: why is the public broadcasting funding agency lining Svengali Cowell's pockets?

The force behind X Factor (and before that Pop Idol and American Idol), Cowell is designed to be loved to be hated - a kind of talent show Gollum, just without the good looks. Snide to contestants, creepy to fellow judges, and famous for belting his trousers almost as high as his botox-harnessed chin, Cowell's real impact is behind the scenes, as executive producer. His fortune is estimated to be worth about £225 million ($440 million).

NZ on Air insists that its contribution to the budget doesn't go towards licensing rights, but that's an accounting trick, about as convincing as the tears of an X Factor judge.

And TV3 has no doubt persuaded the agency that it couldn't mount such an expensive operation without that $1.6 million - the same amount, incidentally, that NZ on Air put in the palm of TVNZ to make Cowell's New Zealand's Got Talent.

NZ On Air mostly gets it right. What a shame it apparently lacked the gumption, however, to say to the networks: no, we're not going to subsidise outpost backyards for the Cowell circus. To say, make them if you can fund them commercially, fire away. But we'll only put money into freshly minted efforts. Make up a new show. Tweak the formula. Do something a bit different.

God knows we can. Fourteen years and one day before the first New Zealand X Factor screens, TVNZ debuted something strange and new called Popstars.

It was great fun - there are clips on NZ On Screen - if you don't remember - with girlband TrueBliss triumphing.

It didn't end well for them, and the show's inventor, Jonathon Dowling, seems to have slipped off the radar, but the format itself was a massive, massive success. It was sold abroad, morphed into Pop Idol, and inspired X Factor.

As one UK Daily Telegraph writer put it, "that show's DNA defines the world's most successful formats, including the X Factor".

Given that the revolution in talent show telly began in New Zealand, not to mention the extraordinary record of Julie Christie and co in exporting TV formats, it's properly sad to see public money propping up this derivative import. As far as the format is concerned, it's about as authentically homegrown as an Irish theme pub.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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