American Idol and the Variety Show Tradition

I also recently had a chance to contribute a guest blog for the PBS Remotely Connected Site. I was asked to write about a current PBS series, Pioneers of Television, which is a first rate exploration of tv history featuring interviews with more than a hundred key players in the early history of the medium. My post dealt primarily with an episode centered on variety programming. Near the end of the post I made an argument that in many ways American Idol has taken on some of the functions which variety programming used to serve. I wrote:

Vestigial elements of variety survive. If the episode had paid more attention to amateur variety competitions, an important sub-genre which goes back to Major Bowles on radio and Godfrey on television, we would see the clear links to contemporary series, such as So You Want to Dance, Dancing with The Stars, Americas Got Talent, and of course, American Idol. Such talent competition series fuse aspects of the game show and the variety traditions, even if they are now lumped into the larger category of reality programming. Consider some of the similarities:

  • These shows are often performed live, much like the earlier variety shows.
  • These shows are much more likely to be watched as they are aired than other contemporary programming, helping to create that sense of a national audience.
  • These shows are more likely to be watched in a social context, whether among family members or roommates.
  • The performances provide music, while the judge offer recurring comic characters.
  • Such programs combine classic old songs with emerging performers, much like the repertoire of Tin Pan Alley standards which were the stock and trade of variety show musical numbers.
  • Such programs offer constant shifts in style which move up and down the taste hierarchy — ballroom dancing one week, hip hop moves the next.
  • Hosts like American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest play much the same functions that Ed Sullivan performed on his program, introducing the performers and warming up the audience between acts.