'Prime time of exposure, abuse and scam'

By Audio Pervert - 4/10/2023

Good singers and even super talented ones are voted out of Indian Idol every episode. The same happens on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Dil Hai Hindustani, Super Singer etc etc. The economy of big-budget entertainment based on competing talent, suspense, hopes, sacrifice, tears and awe is humongous! Across mainstream media, online and social media, these massively popular shows indeed generate winners, even few lucky ones that make it to the ranks of Bollywood. Wow! Yet what about the losers? What about the thousands of teenage girls and boys, young women and men, who go back home, with dashed hopes or at best a pat on the back? What really kept them from becoming “super singers” or was their ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’ (Do Re Mi Fa…) not perfect enough?

These questions open a Pandora’s box of problems, revealing dirty manipulative practices, sometimes traumatic, at times social and personal, yet all of them with their tails pointing towards the entertainment industry. Winners or losers, the entertainment industry is source of premature exposure, manipulation, trauma, voyeurism and even depression. The size of the economy, makes sure that such toxic disturbing aspects are carefully edited out, much less revealed by the participants, judges, fans, parents and less understood by the cheering audience.

What stops us speaking about the impact of such talent shows on aspiring teenagers, talented girls and boys, makes for a story of disempowerment, abuse and moral denigration. Central to our argument, is an overview of the manipulation, unforeseen exposure, psychological trauma behind this “winner takes it all” culture. What risks do the young and the naive face when entering such manipulative environments?

“I felt like ‘the biggest loser’ in the middle of the final round... knowing that millions of people, all my friends and family, could see that I would not win in spite of having a good voice and making it through the rounds... because we (contestants) knew well deep inside, what the directors of the show had planned... but for a while I felt like I was actually winning because of my voice... I had conveniently forgotten what they had told me during the rehearsals... ‘Hey, you still look fat .. and your weight issue can become a public downer...“ (runners up Indian Idol 2019 with 18% vote share - name withheld)

“Indian Idol 13 judges have finalized the top 15 contestants of the show. Indian Idol 13 is a scam, fake show - participants and viewers knew why...” SIASAT Indian Idol Story.

America’s Got Talent Is Fake! by Nicky Swift

...and welcome to the Idol Factory!
A bit of history for a global context? Reality TV entails many forms, based on demographic and national nuances. The global emergence of this genre has been studied as “media based voyeurism” or “mediatized observation”. Accessible to public, one can view it as a game, contest, duel, test, peep-show etc televised for capsule sized entertainment. The earliest example of such shows goes back to 1950s, in the United States. ‘Candid Camera’ (launched in 1949) is still cited as America’s pioneer “reality based shows” extending for almost 30 years. Eurovision being the current world #1 in terms of outreach, participation and revenue generation (approx. 430M worldwide viewers). Reality TV shows account for at least 1+ billion viewers globally. Also 47% of the viewers consider them as “guilty pleasures.” The gamification of these shows is now predicated by widespread public participation via online voting. Virtually unknown teenagers become overnight celebrities, the majority of whom momentarily peak the given charts, usually followed by a quick die off (virtually speaking). Imagine a steep bell-curve of fame!

As Indian mainstream entertainment often replicates the West (with a given delay), similar is the case with talent shows on Indian prime time. A volatile world where teenagers and young people plucked from obscurity, are offered a chance to become stars. But that teenage girl from Bihar or young man from Kerala, with lots of naive talent is up for big scam in essence!

Singing contests create specific conditions, where a viewer can vicariously identify with the protagonist (the contestant) without knowing anything objectively about the given person. These shows ‘bridge our desire’ to blend talent with glory, competition with fate, the winners and all the losers, together symbolize the validation of meritocracy. We are ‘made to feel’ that the ‘best person is winning’. The sensationalism, drama, manipulation, tears, speculative judgement and hyper real appearances makes the experience ever more engaging (addictive). The conversion of raw talent into battle-size entertainment in HD. The economic success of these talent shows, extends itself pan-society, to exploit children as young as 9 years old (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Lil Champs). The parents, audience, production gurus and team implicitly responsible for exposing these children to “values based solely on appearance” and “unrealistic prospects of success” plus other negative implications (IPL Academic Research Base)

“The addiction to this genre is spreading at a steady pace. Why? Because watching the psychological journey of extreme emotions is hypnotic and addictive. Then it hardly matters, if the journey is about singing or dancing or performing unusual acts or romance, heartbreak, anxiety, rage etc etc. The experience entails vicarious thrills sustained by negative cultural feedback for the viewers, and more so when we know that we are sitting snuggled in the comforts of our homes...” Puja Khatri / Yukti Ahuja (Presence and impact of voyeurism in the Indian media environment) . The rise of talent shows is linked to ‘Social Learning’ (observe and imitate others) which was widely used by Viacom, Foxx, BBC, NBC, MTV (early 1990s) and later in India by Zee, StarPlus, Sony, Channel V, Sun TV, Colors etc. In simple terms, it is a form of social engineering executed via televised entertainment. A “scripted process” that uses group dynamics to train social and personal emotions (to coexist).

“A large part of sponsored media, cherrypicks stereotypical beautiful (thin people) as ‘ideal’. Underweight and/or slim but curvy models, teenagers and even children acting out in millions of adverts. The regime of perfection is tacit, and it impacts us all. Even as woke advertising pundits include Africans, Chinese, Indians, Chubby etc, the regime of perfection plays out as is. The exposure to all pervasive visual propaganda has the strongest (negative) effect on teenagers and children, in certain cases as young as 4 to 5 years old... the exposure effect disempowers them over time and making them vulnerable to media based manipulation, at a mental and physical level...” from a new article by A. Morin (psychologist, writer). Similar to Reality TV (Big Brother, MTV Splitsvilla, Nach Baliye etc), the distraction lies in distortion, emotional fakery and big doses of exaggeration. One which takes the viewer and the aspiring talent away from the supposed objective - about how good is one’s voice? How hard have they worked to reach this alter of national prestige? What doesn’t happen naturally often is added by the producers, script writers and editors. Because regardless of all the hype and hoopla, there are no real standards or means to value (judge) any two (or more) competing voices. That too under 3 minutes, even if it’s voted in or out by millions of people.

The bitter aspects of this culture, most often escapes the eyes of a fan, who tends to forget (or filter out) the cultural backdrop that she or he belongs to. India, a society which still has deep issues with the individuality of girls, women and queer. Where golden hits of Bollywood are sung by teenage boys and girls almost like hymns, on the alter of high- entertainment. What we hear on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Dil Se Hindustani, Super Singer, Indian Idol etc equates to a carousel of about 40 to 50 Bollywood hits (past and present), sung over and over again by ever new aspiring talent from various parts of India. Yet India is a country rich in diversity in terms of folk music, songs, dialects, narratives and local aesthetics.

That diversity is mostly absent from all such contests. An overwhelming majority of the winners and judges are male (Wikipedia Indian Idol Winners 2004-2021 = 78% male). Of the 970 Talent Shows aired during 2013-2019, female contestants accounted for 22% [SKCF Indian Women In Media 2021]. Similar gender inequality is visible across the entire spectrum of media activities, such as current affairs, sports, Bollywood news etc. In practice these contests give little importance to diversity or talent, even less about individual expression. Instead the emphasis remains on the assembly line production of spectacles, very similar as they look and sound years on, produced by an industry, perhaps regurgitating forever. In case you are a talented singer (female, queer or male) looking for a sustainable rewarding career, why would you want to go down such a prefabricated path? Places where singers behave more like junior gladiators?! Just for that 3 and a half minutes of fame and glory?! Think again please.

Ready for War? But Smile Please!
Talent must pass many tests, ordeals, unexpected twists and turns, the approval of celebrity judges and the approval of the audience. Following preliminary auditions, past all the screen tests, background checks, weight, height and skin-color approvals, the select bunch of aspiring young singers make it to the esteemed alter, the audition. Congratulations you made it! Never mind those who did not and even less as to why! Now starts the combat, oh pardon! the contest. Sing your heart out (less it explodes later with anxiety). Still alive? Welcome to the Finale! This is your moment buddy! Lights, Camera, Action! Average performance time 3 minutes 15 seconds.... the music fades, the verdict follows and it’s over! Too bad, someone else won. But now it’s time to smile, shed a tear or two, say adieu and depart .

A few words of hope by the lovely host, as the celebrity judges wave you out, to oblivion. In brief, this experience (or call it step wise manipulation and torture) is laid out for everyone entering the game. On what basis is one valued as talented or not-so-talented is never clear, and worse when we hear the celebrity judges justify the ongoing scam. The word ‘talent’ itself begins to stink up the whole show!

Shankar Mahadevan, one of the highest paid judges and an icon of Bollywood music, insists that “musical elements are present in the DNA of everyone, including both my sons, but it’s up to them to nurture it, go through training, work very hard and find their way up ..it’s the same for any good singer...” [NDTV Interview with Rajdeep Sardesai 2019]. Fact is, that there is nothing in anyone’s DNA related to art or music, however Shankar Mahadevan as an artist relates to a lineage, a class of privilege, which works wonders in the music industry of India. Mahadevan, like every beacon of Bollywood does not have the capacity to express any real sentiments, for the thousands of girls and boys who didn’t make it. Who went back home with their dreams and expectations trashed. Such unfortunate outcomes, that never ever happened in the virtuosos life! 

A tacit hierarchy of privilege, ensures such unfair and disempowering incidents don’t occur with folks like Shankar Mahadevan. So, was there something wrong in their DNA Shanker Ji? And will your sons also participate in a contest given all the “training and nurture” ? For decades, mainstream culture in India has been orchestrated by a tiny ruling elite. That exclusivity is a barrier in creating inclusivity, as vast number of Indians, especially those underprivileged, rural, Dalits, tribal, gay and queer, disabled etc are effectively excluded from participation. Yes a token or exceptional appearance happens from time to time, to maintain a ‘faux image of inclusivity’. Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Tamil speaking folks also watch similar contests in their languages, yet again hosted by a tiny cabal of Bollywood celebs, popular singers, cricket players, fashion models etc. The majority of the young girls and boys who aspire to compete and win, are from tier 2 or 3 towns of India, while the judges are most often upper class Indians, living in the tier 1 mega cities.

Take the case of Monica Dogra (Bollywood starlet, born in Maryland, US) in “What It Takes To Be The Master Of Your Own Material” (sponsored by Grazia “a distinctive 'Easy Chic' philosophy”). Role models born of wealth and privilege (and their given beauty) may have “waited tables and worked as a bartender in New York”, yet any self-serving personality is eventually validated by mass media and public response, and not by her or his inherent virtues or talent. Monica Dogra, while peddling hoodwink mantras to public like “be the master of your own material” implicitly negates how Bollywood, Fashion and Advertising as interlinked industries tacitly favor class, beauty, skin color, height, accent etc etc. Inconsequential “master or easy chic” - be it Heidi Klum (America’s got Talent) or Monica Dogra (The Stage) who in construct are mascots of a given brand or the prime time television industry. “Masters” of what we may never know…

The Exposure Effect!
Celebrity cult worship (and obsession) with Bollywood stars is an intergenerational affair in India. Through decades, Indians from all sections of society, have grown up consuming the ‘star studded blitzkrieg’ of Bollywood. The Indian scene also mirrors disturbing social patterns which exist in the U.S. viz-a-viz Hollywood. “The obsession to be on TV, mimic celebrities which leads to the development of combative skills, to gain more attention is very similar to addiction of drugs, alcohol and pornography...” states Miami based psychologist Dr. Jamie Huysman. “It’s a symptom of a much deeper emotional problem, and the sufferer’s malaise in many cases infects the entire family…” How does ‘obsession’ spill over into the contests that we are talking about? Defined as the ‘Exposure Effect’, studies based on Eurovision and American Idol speak of “a two sided impact, on viewers and contestants”. The effect is perhaps the key factor, to ensure maximum participation from both ends. Orchestrated by the directors, producers, celebrity judges and eventually by the franchised format, the spectacle has very little to do with the index of talent or a fair game. Instead a fair amount of orchestrated conflict and humiliation takes precedence.

No one tells these young people that most of the natural footage will be left out, not just to fit the edit but to manipulate “character development”. Character defects may be exaggerated simply by editing down the good qualities. Or even amplified depending on the incoming votes. Knowing this, the judges often use misleading words or verdicts to make the contestant think they are going home, just before revealing that they are actually moving up, maybe on their way to win the competition.

The Exposure Effect is meant to psychologically impact contestants. Teenage girls and boys are susceptible, especially those who aspire (sometimes too deeply) to become Bollywood singers one day. That ‘one day’ dream-come-true is what all these contests are pointing to, whoever exaggerated, full of fakery, personal risks and mental health issues. The irony, that the spectacle literally lasts for ‘one day’ for a vast majority of the aspiring talent. “The probability of exposure to stress, anxiety, psychological and bodily harm is high, during the entire timeline of a given contests. Many disturbing or objectionable details are edited out. The producers, script writers, judges et all are pushing a bunch introverts to become extroverts. The rapid and unforeseen transition creates psychological impacts. It also leads to long term negative effects. Recent studies reveal that the producers of the biggest singing contests do not account for these risks - further deny the occurrence of psychological trauma, bullying, that some contestants have experienced and reported...” a recent study by Frontiers In Psychology.

A similar field study in India would be valuable, especially when we are told that approximately 280M Indians watch Top 7 song based contests every week. 71% of that audience is aged 8 to 45 years. In 2022, approx. 513M mobile broadband users watched prime time entertainment shows (nearly half of India’s population)

The performance of celebrity judges as ‘high priests of merit’ also reveals certain abject if not hilarious aspects of these shows. The most obvious part comes across in the commenting behaviors of judges, because that too is scripted, manipulative in nature, full of grandiose fakery and intermittent nuggets of drama. These highly adored public figures, also develop a preference only for things that they are familiar with. Their artistic sensibilities actually bound inside very conventional standards. As a consequence, the act of evaluation has already been outsourced to external factors, which ensure the popularity, participation and continuity of the given show. A majority of the Bollywood icons who judge these talent shows are often past their career prime, and essentially are actors, made to heap effusive praise or pointless criticism, rather than any objective evaluation or real tutorship. Dare I say, that most of them are double-standard personas.

Off camera, most of the Bollywood super-singers and music directors who appear on such talent shows, use (or are totally depend on) Antares AutoTune (a pitch correction software for voice), while in front of the camera they are judging young naive singers about their pitch, accuracy, range, depth, richness, yada yada! “Your voice is so divine… I could almost feel the presence of the almighty…” Anu Malik Indian Idol 2017. In 2019, Anu Malik was accused for sexual harassment and violence by several Bollywood singers and actresses. The big words aside, do these industry stalwarts actually foster new talent or even share new opportunities? Do they create real access? The general answer is no. After all, it’s an overrated spectacle and not how the industry works in reality.


Some say, that it’s OK to languish in five-minutes of fame. If you have your head on your shoulders and feet on the ground, then why not go for it? What’s the harm? I say that is ‘bullsh*t! We seem to ignore that any ambition needs dedication, to achieve credible goals over time. Nothing happens in 5 minutes. The prime time shows make us believe that anyone can ‘make it’ as long as they have ‘talent’. However everyone is talented, in one way or another, without having to measure or compete. We are told again and again, that we cannot be winners unless we contain the drive, determination, long hours and sacrifices made by those at the top. The ones at the top, as seen for decades now, are mostly a bunch of mediocre, self-serving industry approved elites. Enablers of prime time business models, of mediocrity, of exposure, abuse and scam. New talent and new songs need a loving audience and an open stage to begin with, instead of an industry mandated slaughter of voices, that we are used to...

published earlier on Substack( May 2023)

  • Share:


0 -