BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Rock and roll is generally regarded as an American invention, but it took the British invasion to invigorate it when it was running dry. Likewise, the talent show. From Major Bowes Amateur Hour on the radio in the '30s and the '40s, to Ted Mack's Amateur Hour on TV in the '50s and '60s, and of course the '80s version, Star Search, the talent show has been a homegrown phenomenon. Now the UK has taken our idea and is selling it back to us, only it's bigger and brighter and everywhere. Pop Idol began life in the UK and is currently playing in 21 countries around the world. Our very own version, known as American Idol has brought us the talented and untalented youth of this great land. [YOUNG MAN SINGING AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL OFFKEY]
BOB GARFIELD:David Lyle is the President of Entertainment and Drama for Fremantle Media North America, the company that's bringing the Idol franchise to a market near you. He has a theory as to why the show is a worldwide bestseller.
DAVID LYLE: We did lots of shows that travel around the world, and one of the things we've found is gee, shucks, you know what? -- people are more or less the same everywhere, and we can give them a show that kind of pushes those emotional buttons. Once you've demonstrated that a show can work in really diverse territories, everyone else wants to kind of get on the bandwagon, because the broadcasters figure that this is an almost guaranteed success.
BOB GARFIELD:We are a news show, so we obviously don't care about what goes right [LAUGHTER] in the export of this program. We're fascinated, though, with what goes wrong. As you've taken the Idol format around the world, I imagine it's not always smooth. What can go wrong?
DAVID LYLE: Well, we did a pan-Arabic version which can use contestants from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, etc. And as that got to the sort of pressure point, there was a small riot in which some members of the audience [LAUGHTER] did resort to bringing out blades. You've got to realize that for many countries that pan-Arabic show went out in, this was the first time the public ever had to cope with something as unusual as voting, so it was a very novel moment for them -- the idea of casting a vote, and probably even more novel, that the votes actually were counted correctly and the right person won.
BOB GARFIELD: The show in Germany is not called German Idol. Why not?
DAVID LYLE:Idol has many sort of meanings around the world. In Germany it was a bit tricky, because it harked back to the fuhrer a little, and hence, in Germany we're searching for a Superstar. I suppose in the words of Basil Fawlty, "we didn't want to mention the war."
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] Has the Simon Cowell part been played successfully in the other markets where Idol is on TV? He is brutally candid in the American version of Idol.
DAVID LYLE: By and large we have encouraged most markets to find a character who's going to tell it like it is. In South Africa, the judges were telling one of the female contestants that, while she had a great voice, if she wanted to be any sort of a pop star, she'd just have to change the way she looked; she'd have to get a new outfit. She burst into tears at this, not because she was insulted, but because it was impossible for her to get a new outfit. She had the one. She was working as a cleaner in South Africa where the wages are hideously low. Fortunately, the public chipped in then, so it was a happy ending.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, I suppose there are two ways to look at the wanton proliferation of the Idol concept around the world. One is that we're all brothers and sisters, and [SINGING] IT'S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL, and we all have the same interests and desires and fascinations. The other way is that globalization is simply out of control, and that we are exporting, cultural imperialists that we are, a kind of homogenous entertainment that ultimately is going to destroy local cultures and make the world a less better place.
DAVID LYLE: [LAUGHS] Discuss, I feel, should be at the end of that, you know. [LAUGHTER] I hate to say it, because it does sound like I'm going to join in, in a chorus of Kumbaya, but in fact it is a small world after all, but each of these shows, while there are things in common from territory to territory, when that star is created, it is the right star for that population, because that population voted for them. Like Belgium, where we've done it. They don't really have their own pop industry. For them to create a singing sensation is almost impossible, because they are just monstered by the large recording companies. So in Belgium, in Holland and in, in Scandinavia, we've done it in Norway too, we've allowed the public to create a new pop star. Maybe it isn't as good as creating a new Nobel peace prize winner or something, but if we can create a national pop star and make the public happy at the same time, I don't think it's such a bad thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, David you're kind to join us. Thanks very much.
DAVID LYLE: Bob, thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD:David Lyle is President of Entertainment and Drama of Fremantle Media North America, the folks who have sent the Idol format just about everywhere you can think of. [MUSIC]