The Idols concept has been around since 2001 and has been adapted in over 46 regions. On Sunday, the 14th South African season premiered on our screens – and we’re wondering why.

Idols SA has mainly delivered winners whose mainstream singing careers are short-lived or merely peripheral, and the audience sentiment on Twitter on Sunday was overwhelmingly indifferent. Between the often tactless panel of judges, and the ‘wooden mic’ section orchestrated to humiliate participants, I have to question the integrity of this competition in today’s entertainment climate.

On one hand, we can argue that since no one is really opening up the industry for fresh, emerging talent to enter, shows like Idols SA, SA’s Got Talent and various presenter searches are necessary. However, it’s time to ask some hard questions.

These tweets made me ask three questions, which I will attempt to answer right now. 

1. What value is there in the ‘wooden mic’ segment?

Anyone who works in the media and entertainment industries totally understands the occasional need to pander to human interest, ie delivering content that could rival candy floss in its fluffiness. However, this show in particular seems to do so at the expense of hopefuls (comedic chancers aside) and of viewers’ intelligence, by giving them a slapstick comedy format from circa 1999.

Of course, the show’s producers can’t deny people a good laugh and I’m sure their ratings reveal a demand for this kind of content.

Perhaps then, my disdain should be directed at the judges rather than the producers, who are just giving the people what they want. Even though there are contestants who audition simply so they can appear on Idols for a good chuckle, there are individuals who enter with the genuine belief that they have the chops to earn a golden ticket. These peeps should probably consult friends and family first, but I think the judges could handle them with more tact than they do. I’ll use a job application as an analogy of what an Idols audition essentially is. Imagine a prospective employer laughed hysterically in your face at how unqualified you are for the position. Not only is it unprofessional, it is also humiliating and discouraging.

Wooden-mic auditions ought to provide entertainment value for the audience, but not be used by the judges as a platform to exercise power dynamics. Granted, they’re not dealing with toddlers, so they aren’t obliged to coddle feelings, but a simple ‘It’s a no from me’ à la Simon Cowell will do. (Randall Abrahams might have this one on lock).

2. Do winners really reap the rewards after the hype?

Another prevalent sentiment I picked up from the influx of tweets about the return of #IdolsSA is that a lot of viewers do not watch the competition beyond the audition rounds, which partially explains why finalists (those who venture into the music industry despite getting booted out) and winners do not garner enough support to propel them to ‘star status’.

American Idol has probably launched the careers with the most longevity compared to any other country, giving us the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks. With the exception of finalists and winners Khaya Mthethwa, Shekhinah Donnell, Amanda Black and Musa Sukwene, most winners’ music careers appear to be dormant. This is not to say their singing abilities are inferior – rather it brings to light how inadequately managed these talents are beyond the confetti and ‘aight so boom!’ prize package.

The Idols SA prize package is a big one: 2017 winner Paxton Fielies walked away with a brand new Ford Focus, R1 000 000 cash prize, R50 000 in fashion vouchers from Truworths, R20 000 worth of musical instruments from Yamaha, and a recording deal. It’s no small prize, but in the grander scheme of things, it’s merely an immediate reward and not an investment in winners’ careers. This prize package can perhaps kickstart one’s music career, but it cannot sustain it.

3. What do we want?

Basically what I’m asking is, does a talent competition that follows the Idols franchise template still have a place in the South African broadcast and entertainment sphere? An EWN article even concluded in about 100 words that the SA audience feels ‘meh’ about this show’s return, while another highlighted how viewers were lamenting the Date My Family hiatus thanks to Idols SA taking its slot. What the local audience wants to watch is fresh, engaging, dynamic TV that keeps up with an ever-evolving brand of human interest. That way, everybody wins.