Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An oral history of Idols on M-Net and some of this reality singing show's most awkward Bye Felicia's over the years.

Since Idols began as a reality talent singing show on M-Net way back in 2002, until 2015 - over the course of the past 13 years and 11 seasons - there's only two print journalists in South Africa who've consistently covered and continuously reported about it since the very beginning and who still do - I'm and one of them.

With M-Net's abrupt firing of Gareth Cliff as Idols judge on Friday, it became the latest very awkward parting of ways between the pay-TV broadcaster and Idols talent - but it's definitely not the first in a long line of cringe-worthy Idols divorces.

M-Net and Idols - produced by [SIC Entertainment] - severing ties with Gareth Cliff, got me thinking over the past weekend about the many, many heavily awkward separations - the pop culture version of "Bye Felicia's" - that Idols delivered over the years in South Africa, and which I've covered.

Here's my list of some awkward Idols Bye Felicia's:

Remember Idols' very first co-host? The late Matthew Stewardson and former KTV presenter was the first co-host of Idols with Candy Litchfield in 2002.

Halfway through the first season Matthew Stewardson who had a life-long addiction with drugs was fired by Idols (viewers didn't then knew why) and suddenly replaced by Sami Sabiti.

Weeks later Matthew Stewardson checked into rehab and a few months later told Carte Blanche about his difficult, lifelong drugs struggle and how he started using cocaine as the son of an alcoholic father.

Remember Dave Thompson? He was a former Idols judge. I got wind that he was about to emigrate and jettison South Africa literally the next morning after the evening of the conclusion of the 5th season of Idols in mid-2009.

At the press conference I asked Dave Thompson, who tried to keep the news secret, why he is emigrating to Australia and leaving South Africa. He told me and all the journalists at the Idols press conference: "No comment". Okaay.

Liezel van der Westhuizen became the new Idols presenter for the 5th season in 2009. A year later, for the 6th season in 2010 ProVerb was added as the co-host. Things became awkward very quickly.

Liezel van der Westhuizen was literally pushed to the back to do short backstage interviews, with ProVerb becoming the "main" Idols presenter. In September 2010 Liezel van der Westhuizen was suddenly immediately cut from Idols mid-way through the season.

It was soo awkies when M-Net announced Sasha-Lee Davids as the winner of Idols' 5th season in 2009 - although Jason Hartman was the real winner with 200 000 more votes in a voting scandal: South Africa's own prequel to the Miss Columbia, Miss Philippines mess. M-Net ended up making both joint winners. There was world peace.

Then Jason Hartman went 'Bye Felicia", saying in an interview that Sasha-Lee Davids should step down because he "feels that the noble thing to do would be for Sasha-Lee to face the obvious truth that he won hands-down and therefore deserves the crown, especially since there was a major difference of 200 000 votes".

Remember Marcus Brewster? He was a former Idols judge, gone after the first season.

He managed the first Idols winner Heinz Winckler and some of the other top Idols contestants bookings and marketing. In 2002 people balked over the apparently sky high prices for appearances and fees.

M-Net said its going to investigate the high fees. The Idols top contestants and eventually also Heinz Winckler said "Bye Felicia".

Remember "Mama Mara"? The former Idols judge who sat behind the desk as a judge since 2002 for five seasons started slamming M-Net's Idols for being racist, saying Idols should be moved to a TV channel like SABC3 or black people will never win a show on M-Net.

Don't forget how Mara Louw would call out Idols producers for the bad sound at the live shows.

In 2010 "Mama Mara" who came across as erratic and used the F-word, admitted she was drunk on-air and mixed painkillers and alcohol before a show and was reprimanded by M-Net and Idols. M-Net said "Bye Felicia" and Mara Louw was quickly replaced by Unathi Msengana as new judge when the 6th season of Idols rolled around in 2011.

It was the perfect backstory that the show itself mined for maximum effect, and the apple picker from Grabouw with the voice of an angel, Karin Kortje eventually won the third season of Idols in 2005.

In the year after winning, relationships became strained between Karin Kortje and others; she also changed managers. She wasn't invited back as a guest, nor invited back to perform in 2006 and didn't appear at the 4th season's grand finale as usually happened with previous winners.

It only lasted one season and you will likely not even remember it - the (gasp!) Afrikaans - yes, I'm not kidding - Afrikaans version of Idols.

Ratings were dismal for Idols, the Afrikaans version way back in 2006 on the Afrikaans DStv channel kykNET of the first - and only - Idols season in Afrikaans.

It was fun to watch - especially as several of the ousted weekly contestants had to try and sing as the tears flowed and struggled through their songs while the end credits rolled and cameras would zoom in on their faces.

Ultimately the TV executives decided against another season and the first Afrikaans season was also its last season. "Koebaai, Felicia."

M-Net as pay-TV broadcaster has now said 'Bye Felicia" to Idols on the M-Net (DStv 101) channel and it is becoming a Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) show only after it was a co-production and simulcast on both TV channels the past four seasons.

M-Net decided to move Idols out of the way of the new The Voice SA starting at the end of January. Why?

M-Net executives came to the decision that it would be too confusing for viewers, and M-Net and DStv subscribers to have two very similar singing talent reality shows on the same channel, dueling with each other for viewer attention.

M-Net also helps MultiChoice to sustain, support and grow the DStv Compact audience. "With the tremendous growth of the Idols DStv Compact audience it makes sense to make Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) the home of Idols season 12," said Yolisa Phahle, M-Net CEO.

Which finally brings us to Gareth Cliff fired as Idols judge. Like Icarus, the radio shock jock flew too close to the sun, deliberately inserting himself into the Penny Sparrow racism scandal and then becoming inextricably entangled.

Gareth Cliff said nothing racist in his one sentence tweet but was incredibly insensitive when he should have showed a lot more understanding and self-restraint.

Once the social media pitchforks came out the resultant brand damage started not just affecting him but also M-Net and Idols through proxy of him being an Idols judge.

Since M-Net and Idols are commercial TV entities with a commercial duty, anytime users and consumers of your services or products call for a boycott, it immediately becomes a very real concern.

TV is not just a visual medium but something like M-Net and Idols are about entertainment - not angry people, boycotts and controversy. In the world of television, image is everything.

Belatedly, Gareth Cliff tried to extract him from the mess he got himself into. It's clear he realised he's in trouble and could lose his Idols gig, as he started referencing and pleading with the public not to drag Idols into this. It was too little, too late.

M-Net top executives started a review of his ongoing participation in Idols and decided that Gareth Cliff had inflicted too much brand damage and would be an M-Net, Idols and Mzansi Magic liability going forward if he remains linked with those brands.

M-Net decided to fire him, and had a meeting this past Friday to tell Gareth Cliff... "Bye Felicia".