Vietnam Joins the Amateur Idol Brigade

Boyish, cheeky and immaculately groomed, 20-something model Tommy Tran bears a striking resemblance to his American counterpart, Ryan Seacrest, the host of the runaway television success American Idol. Tran is eye candy to thousands of local teenage girls, and as confident as any Western-educated, young bachelor who returns to Vietnam.

But unlike Seacrest, Tran only exists on the web. Tommy T is the ‘web host’ of Vietnam Idol and the first web-based employee for an American Idol adaptation. He interviews contestants and fans for profiles that run exclusively on VI’s website. The country has 13 million Internet users in a population of 85 million.

Permutations of American Idol are successful all over the globe, but, according to the show’s executive producer, Roshan Dutt, Vietnam is in a league by itself. Dutt introduced Indian Idol, and has also launched another reality show, Peking Express, in several European countries. But none of that, he says, prepared him for the challenge of bringing an emotive singing competition to a regimented, socialist country.

“I've done about 10 reality shows around the world, but I can easily say that Vietnam is the toughest market to work in,” he says.

Regimented socialist country or no, the appeal of a television show that gives a talented kid a shot at entertainment world glory is as irresistible as it is in the domains of the biggest running dog capitalists. Despite the fact that Vietnam Idol is only a few months old, its audiences are filled with screaming fans exhorting the judges to pick their favourites among contestants who possess more hair gel and prepubescent charm than singing talent.

There are not one but two amateur talent shows, Vietnam Idol and a longstanding local competitor, Sao Mai-Diem Hen (literally “Morning Star – the Destination”). Vietnam Idol can only air on local channels in its audition cities: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Can Tho. Thus the online outreach is also necessary to fend off Sao Mai- Diem Hen.

Vietnam Idol is fashioned directly after American Idol, even down to the theme song. The winner is determined by home viewers voting for their favorite contestants, typically by mobile SMS or phone call. As in the US, each week the least popular contestant is booted off the show. Three music-based judges sit in every episode to offer a professional critique of the remaining contestants, but ultimately they cannot vote in later rounds.

Although both shows publically aim “to find the nation's next pop star,” there are striking differences. Contestants on SMDH are mostly professional singers, and are thus visibly (and audibly) more mature. Song choices scream Barry Manilow rather than Britney Spears, and the overall mood can be quite serious. You won't find anybody like William Hung, for one, who became a sensation in the United States because he was so awful. And you certainly won't see contestants bickering with the judges, as they often do on American Idol.

Furthermore, winners are selected based on a combination of viewer and judge input. And there aren’t any acerbic ringmasters like American Idol’s Simon Cowell either. Following a government reprimand for being too critical on air, judges of SMDH keep criticism light-hearted. It is essentially American Idol, localized to a fault.

Launched in 2004, SMDH is a bi-annual, televised singing competition produced by Vietnam’s largest broadcaster, state-owned Vietnam TV (VTV). But despite numerous amendments to its singing standards in the last three years, SMDH has yet to produce a lasting pop sensation.

Nor has Vietnam Idol. “Their vocal quality is nowhere near that of SMDH,” says Tan Hai, a local media consultant, “But they all share a love of singing.” On this show you'll find wannabe pop stars who are told, before they go on stage, not to take the competition too seriously.

“The contestants are very confident, but very controlled in their emotions, which makes it difficult for me to turn it into a reality show,” says Dutt, who only moved to Vietnam four months ago. “One of my toughest challenges was teaching my own staff how to create reality TV. The concept is completely new to them.”

And unlike SMDH, VI took its audition rounds outside of Vietnam's two major urban centers to visit Da Nang and Can To. “I had to convince the sponsors that Vietnam Idol should go beyond Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. We all come from upmarket, urban backgrounds and many of us aren't exposed to cities outside these two,” says Dutt.

He also felt that viewers in smaller cities were more likely to catch the show each week. His predictions are clearly illustrated in the latest ratings from TNS. The first three episodes met with single-digit rating percentages in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Can Tho. Meanwhile Da Nang stood out with rating percentages around 15 percent.

But the show still has a long way to go, both in its selection process and in voter participation. The show has finally reached the stage where 10 finalists are identified out of thousands. “We just had our first voting show,” Dutt says. “Numbers were close to 50,000 votes. It's a far cry for the millions that we're used to, but it's so new here that I can still be happy about it.”

Certainly, Vietnam appears to be a fertile market for the show. A staggering 60 percent plus of the population is under 25, the target audience. And karaoke is very, very big. Also, kids are also introduced to a microphone in primary school, as a tool for teaching English.

“This show was just waiting to be made,” Dutt claims. “People here love watching Korean dramas and variety shows. This is an experiment, and people are slowly accepting it.”

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