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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK
Fame Academy's learning curve
The BBC's Fame Academy programme was launched amid a blaze of publicity and on-screen trails.
Forget Big Brother or Pop Idol, they seemed to say, this is the ultimate in reality TV programmes.
The show put 12 wannabes in a fame school, offering them the prize of a recording contract and at least 12 months of living the high life.
It offered all the best elements of Big Brother - the 24 hour surveillance in a house - and Pop Idol - relatively talented performers battling it out for stardom.
It was also a tried and trusted formula that proved a huge hit in Spain, where it was called Operacion Trionfo, and in France, where it was known as Star Academy.
What could go wrong?
Actually, quite a lot.
First, the opening programme was savaged by the critics and the show was quickly given the unwelcome soubriquet Lame Academy.
Worringly for TV executives the programme lacks the support of the tabloids, often crucial in building momentum in a series.
David Stephenson in the Sunday Express said: "Why is the BBC wasting our money on something ITV so obviously does better?"
Andy Medhurst, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex, said the programme's problems stemmed from the planning stage.
"It is too obviously derivative. It is far too much of a mix of Big Brother and Pop Idol."
To make matters worse, the public seemed to agree with the critics.
Just 4.6 million viewers watched the first programme and mid-week updates were only pulling in about 3.7m viewers, less than programmes such as Watchdog which had been filling the slot a week earlier.
In France and Spain it was all so different. Operacion Trionfo was a ratings smash and a cultural phenomenon on the level of Big Brother in the UK.
The programme pulled in $90m in revenue and all 16 of the contestants went on to get recording contracts with more than three million albums sold so far.
In the Spanish version viewers were voting on a winner who would represent the country in the 2002 Eurovision contest, a prize which caught the imagination of the public.
In France the opening episode in a second series of Star Academy pulled in more than 6.5 million viewers, and 50% of the viewing audience.
At the moment, BBC executives, and production company Endemol, can only dream of such figures.
Endemol executives, however, publicly profess themselves to be happy with the viewing figures.
Charlie Gardner, a spokesman for Endemol UK, said: "In Spain, in particular, the first four weeks ratings were very low then it started to build.
"The first Big Brother series in the UK, early episodes had audiences under two million.
"Four weeks in it had built to become a huge phenomenon - partly because of the Nasty Nick story."
Endemol also created the Big Brother format, which started in the Netherlands in 1999.
"The first ever Big Brother in Holland started slowly," he adds.
Endemol also points out that the ratings are slowly beginning to rise.
The second Friday live show peaked at 5.2m viewers and in the second half was the most watched show in its slot.
Even if the figures are rising, they appear to be a long way off the hopes surely held by television executives.
Many commentators feel the poor opening show set the wrong tone for the series.
The live performance-based show contained none of the elements associated with reality TV programmes, and instead felt more like a BBC version of Stars in their Eyes.
Mr Gardner admitted the first show did not reflect the series as a whole but stopped short of saying the programme was a mistake.
"The first show did not give a huge amount of flavour of what was to come. There was no investment in the characters.
"Like any drama - people have to invest emotionally in the characters over time."
But Andy Medhurst said the scheduling of the programme had been a mistake and made it difficult to get to know the "students".
"Big Brother always ensured there was a half an hour update every day.
"Three programmes a week is not enough of a build up to the eviction.
"It does not have a prestige slot like Popstars: The Rivals."
The great fear is that the viewing public has had enough of reality TV shows and that Fame Academy is feeling the backlash.
But Mr Medhurst does not believe reality TV as a genre is beginning to wane.
He said: "Reality TV has got a future but as with any genre there will be more misses than hits. "There is always a high failure rate."
He said the future of the programme would be dependent on which of the "students" survived to the later programmes.
"There are some really talented people, much more so than Popstars. There are a few who have really individual talents who do not fit into the pre-packaged pop mould."
"We are in week three of a 10-week run," said Mr Gardner.
"It's very, very early days."
BBC executives will be hoping he is right.
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