Wannabe pop idols sell their souls

Contestants in a new reality TV show may not know what they’re signing up for

Thebe Mabanga South Africa’s latest reality TV show, Idols, may capture audience imaginations in the same way as, or even better than, its predecessor Big Brother did, but the show may hit snags on the legal front. Following the success of the 106-day cohabitation in a Randburg, Johannesburg, house, M-Net has acquired the rights to another reality show one that takes the format of a talent search to select a South African pop idol.

Idols will run from March to mid-June this year. However, there are already concerns from music industry stakeholders that the restrictive rules of the contest might prove counterproductive. M-Net marketing manager Craig Miller this week conceded that launching by March 10 has put the organisers under severe time constraints. As a result the rules have been taken from Freemantle Pearson, the United Kingdom-based production company that holds the rights to the show. The most contentious aspect of the rules is a clause that forbids participants from having any formal representation in the form of a manager or a talent agent. This implies that talent agencies and training institutions that might have invested time, effort and, in some cases, money to develop a promising musician can see their assets walk away sometimes breaching contractual agreements for the lure of the television spotlight.

Garth Ferrent, head of the popular music division at the National School of the Arts, says: “From the school’s point of view, we cannot hold back students from participating but we would not like to see managers and agents being left out of the loop.” Miller gives two reasons for this clause. The first “is to try and discover people who have not had exposure to the music industry”. The second “is to protect [M-Net] from opportunistic agents who might demand compensation for their part in developing the artist”. The rules further require that finalists give up their time for four months to M-Net free of charge to do promotions for the channel and travel without chaperone.

Miller says “there are aspects of the rules we are currently negotiating to waive”. He provides as an example a flexible application of the 16-to-26 age bracket for participation. Levina Nunan, contracts manager for the pay channel, says that the 50 finalists selected from auditions will be required to sign a participant’s agreement to take part in the show, failing which they will be disqualified. The free time required of participants is for purposes of shoots and promotional interviews and Nunan maintains that this will “be reasonable”. There have also been questions raised about the decision to award the winner a contract to recording giant BMG instead of allowing the winner to offer his or her services to the highest bidder. Miller says this is because BMG International, a subsidiary of German entertainment giant Bertelsmann, is a shareholder in the concept. A potential pitfall in the competition is that even though the entry form has been printed in 12 national publications, the rules are accessible only through M-Net’s website and Multichoice offices, which means that most people sign the form without having read the fine print. Miller acknowledges this limitation and says the organisers will take participants through the regulations by telephone when they are invited for auditions.

Miller says the contract does not include prize money but that the organisers are trying to negotiate a sponsor for a cash prize.

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