The Masked Singer

Is the end of reality tv in sight?

Image: Network Ten

The Masked Singer is the first clear sign in 20 years that the age of reality TV may finally be ending. Season 2 hit Channel 10 recently to a social media drubbing and a smaller audience. In all fairness, the show is an easy mark. A catalogue of local celebs in big masks and fancy dress was never going to breed much in the way of drama or mystique.

The manufactured ignorance of the judges doesn’t help, especially as social media usually has contestants identified within minutes of their first performance. The weekly reveals are patently scheduled. But while the shows days may feel numbered, hopefully its initial success resonates loudly enough with TV execs to bring back the Aussie icon that sits at its heart: an honest to god variety show.

The Masked Singer follows a well-tested formula. Artists are paid to perform and cash in after appearances with publicity and album sales. It’s basic “guess who” format dates to CBS’s iconic 1950’s game show What’s My Line.

For decades, weekly variety shows brought commentators, intellectuals, comedians and musicians onto the box. They launched countless successful local and international careers for Australian artists ranging in diversity from Maria Venuti to AC/DC. But over time, the massive success and elaborate production these shows needed made them too expensive to keep. Producers began searching for ways to lower their overhead and reality TV was the result.

Australia did variety TV very well. In Melbourne Tonight, The Mike Walsh Show, Countdown, Young Talent Time, Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Rove Live number amongst the most successful shows in Australian history. Their catalyst came on February 6, 2000 when Popstars first aired on Channel 7.

The reality format evolved quickly from there. Producers found they could guide plotlines without an expensive script. Better still, they could cut appearance fees and share the earnings of their endless supply of eager contestants. The commercial results were wildly successful. Audience expectations shifted virtually overnight. Variety formats have never recovered.

The artistic success rate of reality singing shows 2 decades on is underwhelming. Only Guy Sebastian, Matt Corby, Anthony Callea and Jessica Mauboy had prolonged chart-topping success on the back of Australian Idol’s seven seasons.

Future series fared no better, with winners of X Factor and Australia’s Got Talent needing appearances at Eurovision (Dami Im, Isaiah Firebrace) or re-appearances on The Voice (Jack Vidgen) to stay in the public eye.

Only two winners of The Voice charted in the top ten past their debut album. After nine seasons, none of the show’s contestants remain household names. The real winners have been the celebrity judges. Delta Goodrem and Guy Sebastian have staged comebacks, while multiple international artists have launched national arena tours and hit singles after their seasons on the show.

Australian audiences have now seen a collective 37 seasons of reality performance shows across six brands, four of them created by the two Simon’s (Fuller and Cowell).

To a 21st century audience, a variety and a game show are virtually interchangeable. In comparison, The Masked Singer risks looking like a toothless beast. The stakes are drastically low compared to its competition. The Voice has a well-managed narrative of lives and fortunes that change at the end of each episode.

The winner of The Masked Singer only gets a trophy, but that’s not the endgame. Season One was a giant nostalgia trip through the household names of the 90’s and 00’s. No one’s career was at stake. The advantages to everyone were obvious. Every carefully curated performance and reveal gave each celeb a gratifying spike in Google hits and Spotify streams.

The night the Robot contestant twerked through Daryl Braithwaite’s hit “Horses” was marketing genius. The fact everyone knew Cody Simpson’s uber-gymned bum was behind it before the song even ended was neither here nor there. That night, both artists sold records and deserved to. This is what variety shows used to do by default and reality tv has been a poor cultural substitute.

The Voice and its ilk may ratchet up the drama, but the cultural result for Australian artists is questionable at best. No one would argue The Masked Singer in its current form will go on to be an icon of Australian TV. But hopefully it’s a sign of a better things to come.

Post COVID-19, Australian artists of every stature and genre are going to need all the paid gigs and publicity they can get. Donning a camp outfit and belting out top-40 covers may be cheesy, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The queue of agents trying to get their celebrity clientele onto season 3 will not be short. The reality tv trend may be far from over, but at least the writings finally on the wall.