More live music, more character development, more Marcia: Inside Australian Idol’s world-first refresh

Australian Idol is launching tonight against Survivor and MAFS. It's an action-packed timeslot, and Seven is betting that a world-first format shake-up, a renewed focus on character development, and the injection of some classic Idol names will have viewers hooked.

Seven’s head of entertainment, Majella Hay, tells Mumbrella about the new revamped season of the original high-stakes reality competition.

Australian Idol is a pioneer of the reality television format. While other reality shows are seen as an easy short-cut to a career in entertainment, Australian Idol has arguably spawned more household names than any reality franchise on earth.

Jess Mauboy, Shannon Noll, Guy Sebastian, Stan Walker, Lisa Mitchell, Matt Corby, Wes Carr, Ricki-Lee Coulter, Casey Donovan, Anthony Callea, Damien Leith, Rob Mills, Paulini Curuenavuli – all these artists were first exposed through the show, and have sustained successful entertainment careers across two decades.

Of course, unlike other reality shows, you have to have talent to succeed on Idol – it is a talent competition after all.

But it’s not just a talent competition — Seven already has one of those in Australia’s Got Talent. It’s not just a singing competition, either — Seven already has one of those in The Voice– it is a star-hunting expedition. It’s also a reality show, which means characters are key. And if there’s one thing Australian Idol is good at – it’s characters.

After reviving the show last year after a 14-year lull, Seven has shaken up the Idol format this season by reducing the number of ‘Golden Ticket’ winners from 50 to 30.

This acts to streamline the somewhat lumbering audition element of the show — which traditionally felt like a completely different beast to the final boot-camp style episodes — while making sure the true stars are given time to shine.

“It was really important for us this year to make sure that we had that character development, and we were really latching on to characters right throughout the series,” Hay explains of the world-first format change.

“Last year, we had 50 golden tickets from the audition process. That was a lot of people to get your head around.”

Along with reducing the number of successful auditions to 30, those auditioning will no longer get an instance pass, instead going into a pool of ‘maybes’ to be sorted at the end of each day.

“It gives our judges the chance to compare apples with apples, or sometimes they can be blown away by someone early in the morning, but then as the day goes on, realise that person maybe isn’t as amazing as they remembered,” Hey explains.

“So it means that really the best-of-the-best are getting those 30 golden tickets, and out of those best-of-the-best, one of them will become the next Australian Idol.”

It also imposes a definitive ‘result’ at the end of each early episode, mirroring the format of other competing reality shows.

Further streamlining the earlier shows, the auditions are all now held Sydney, sparing the television audience the needless trip around the country to see queues of hopefuls snaked outside sound stages in each capital city. After all, Idol is about finding stars, personalities, talent.

To remind viewers of the breadth of the Idol talent pool, Idol alumni Guy Sebastian and Jessica Mauboy will both be seen during this season (Sebastian appears tonight, Hay reveals), while Ricki-Lee Coulter is again co-hosting the show.

Coulter placed seventh in the 2004 season of Australian Idol, and has since sold hundreds of thousands of records, both independently, after she turned down early major label deals that didn’t offer much in the ways of freedom or finance, and as a multi-Platinum-selling artist under EMI.

She currently tops radio ratings as a host of Nova’s nation drive radio show, and, last year, jumped from hosting Australia’s Got Talent to Australian Idol. Hay calls her “the most consummate performer”.

“I mean, look at her now, where she’s come from: from auditioning in Idol, to now having an established music, radio, and television career.

“I think that’s the power of Idol as a format, whether it’s becoming a music superstar or launching yourself into that industry. It’s probably one of, if not the most, successful reality performance show for giving people that head start – and our host Ricki-Lee, front-and-centre, is a perfect testament to that.”

Soul legend Marcia Hines is also back as a permanent judge, her role during the original seven-season run. “The original Queen”, as Hay dubs her, was involved last season in a guest capacity, but viewers, and programmers, clearly wanted more.

“She’s a complete delight,” Hay says. “She’s honest, but she’s also incredibly nurturing. Her relationship with Kyle is really dynamic. I think Amy [Shark – fellow Idol judge and Sony artist] explains it the best where she says ‘it’s kind of like watching mum and dad’, that one minute they love each other, and the next minute, they’re kind of at each other. They’ve got this dynamic that goes back for years.

“Marcia has lived and breathed this industry,” Hay continues. “I mean, she was stage performing in Hair when she was 16. She’s now a little bit older than 16 — I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying; she’s in her seventies — and she’s had one of the longest careers in this business. So she’s seen the industry change. She knows, vocally, what someone needs, and she knows what it takes to become a star. So she’s the perfect fit for Australian Idol for this second revamped series.”

She will also help bring the year-on-year audience growth that Seven is aiming for with this new season of Idol.

“That’s what we’re after this year,” Hay said. “We saw across our entertainment slate on Seven, a lot of our shows have year-on-year growth last year — you know, Farmer Wats A Wife, Dancing with the Stars — that’s exactly what we’re hoping for with Idol.

“We know that by bringing back Marcia, that will help with that older demographic, especially 55 plus and 55 plus female, but it’s really that year-on-year progression that we’re after.

“We know that audiences love the live shows. So we’ve extended the back-end of the run this year, because we know that they’d love to vote, and they love to see these world-class performances.

“So we’ve really fleshed that out this year for viewers – which we’re hoping will translate to that growth in viewing numbers.”

Australian Idol launches tonight on Seven, at 7.30pm.





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