Think “American Idol” started the trend of shows on TV offering the chance to average guys to grab a piece of the American Dream of instant wealth and celebrity? Well, you’re only off by a little more than half a century. In fact, the concept of what is today exemplified by “American Idol” and its multiple variations trace back so far that you can honestly say the talent show is one of television’s oldest genres.
Not that the carefully crafted and utterly manipulated drama of “American Idol” bears even the slightest resemblance to the shows that originated the genre and played a part in its evolution. The TV talent shows of today are far less about the actual talent and the talented than they are about exploiting the emotional exhibitions of those on the show and the emotional responses of those watching the show. The starkest dividing line between what was and what is can be located in the fact that most of the prototypes offered an all or nothing one-show kind deal rather than bringing competitors back each week.
“Songs for Sale” may be mostly forgotten now, but when a show can lay serious claim to helping boost the career of Tony Bennett, you can guess just how popular the show was. Actually, the careers of Bennett and Rosemary Clooney both took off as a result of being relative unknowns charged with the job of bringing to life the submissions of the songwriters who were actually being judged. “Songs for Sale” was a competition for songwriters, but the great irony is that it was the hired singers who performed the compositions on live TV who were the only ones to mine fame from its competition.
“Songs for Sale” aired on CBS between 1950 and 1952, but the history of “American Idol” and its contemporary copycats can be traced even further back than that! Less than half of one percent of US households even owned a television set when “Doorway to Fame” premiered on the old Dumont Network in May 1947. (The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes “Mary Kay and Johnny” as the first American sitcom and its first episode would not air until November 1947, thus making the amateur talent show a TV genre that predates the sitcom!)
The emcee of this talent show was none other than Johnny Olsen of “The Price is Right” fame. In the book “Total Television”, author Alex McNeil offers a portrait of an attempt to adapt to the revolutionary medium of television an entertainment genre that had already been a mainstay of radio production for years. The prototype of video technology commonly referred to as “green screen” today was utilized to provide a changing series of backdrops to give the performances of the contestants on “Doorway to Fame” a bit of oomph that radio could not duplicate.
Imagine if “American Idol” and the other grandchildren of the earliest television talent shows that are so popular today were as interested in forwarding the evolution of the medium as “Doorway to Fame” sounds like it must have been. Perhaps Simon Cowell would by now have discovered the next Tony Bennett instead of the first Taylor Hicks.