Gary James' Interview With
Professor Dom Caristi




Dom Caristi is a Professor Of Telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and he's got a thing or two to say about American Idol. So we spoke to him about his observations.

Q - Dom, have you been watching this year's American Idol?

A - To be frank, no, I have not. (laughs)

Q - That's too bad. The talent is probably some of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Maybe that's because I'm very much aware that this is the last season. That's it. I don't know.

A - Yeah, that could sway your thinking. I'm not sure. It could be that they've made an extra effort to try and find (the best talent). There's a lot of reasons it could be. It could be people are saying this is my last shot. I don't doubt you when you say that. But I also say that there could be something else that's affecting that.

Q - You believe American Idol is nothing more than a spin of the old shows. Well, there is one big difference.

A - How's that?

Q - They've thrown a lot of money behind American Idol.

A - (laughs)

Q - They've got the top sponsors for the show and you'll notice the p.r. for the show is terrific while the show is on the air. When the voting for the contestants begins, you'll see all the national morning shows talking about the contestants and the local TV shows talking about it and the radio talking about it. I don't think that happened with Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.

A - No. You're absolutely right about that. Ted Mack's Amateur Hour did not get that kind of attention. You're absolutely right about that. But in fairness, we didn't have a 24 / 7 news cycle that we had to feed the monster. NBC every morning has to come up with three to four hours of content to fill a pseudo news show. They'll go find anything they can. They're new programs filled with cooking segments. I cannot argue. You're 100% right that those things are picked up by all these news media, but what I will give you is, news media of the 21st century are picking up stuff that news media fifty years ago would not have considered to be news.

Q - You're right about that. The network evening news is filled with feel good stories. That didn't happen when Walter Cronkite was on the air.

A - Right. Well, the twenty-two minute network newscast, which is probably closer to twenty-one minutes now or twenty maybe, it used to be twenty-two minutes of news. That's the least amount that any of the networks do. You're probably not going to see many American Idol stories in there. Where you're going to see them all is on the multi-hour morning newscasts and the local newscasts that fill two and three hours by repeating weather every twelve minutes. We're getting a little a field of the American Idol topic, but what's happened in the news industry in America is dramatically different from what it would have been in the Ted Mack days.

Q - My one criticism about Idol is after the winner for the season in picked, we never hear anything. The hype machine stops.

A - Well, there's no interest from Fox. There might be an interest from whatever record label picks that performer up, but once the show is no longer on Fox's air, Fox has no interest in promoting that performer.

Q - You say "What American Idol did more than anything else was to sell the American Dream. So many talented people and unfortunately, sometimes those lacking talent, believe that the only thing standing between them and stardom is their inevitable discovery."

A - Right.

Q - "People want to believe if only they can be seen by the right people they will become stars." There's more truth to that than people are willing to believe.

A - (laughs)

Q - And I'll give you an example. Mick Jagger told Parade magazine in a March 3e0th 2008 article when he was asked about the longevity of The Rolling Stones: "I think obviously a tremendous amount of luck. Right places, right time, right faces. And we had great confidence in what we did compared to other people." Notice he didn't mention he's lasted this long because of his talent, or his voice, or the musicianship of the band. He got lucky.

A - Right.

Q - So, when people audition for American Idol they too are hoping to be seen by the right people.

A - I think the other element of that is they are under the mistaken belief that it doesn't take hard work, it just takes being "discovered." One of Malcolm Gladwell's books, Outliers, talks about ten thousand hours, his theory about ten thousand hours. He talks about The Beatles playing in the clubs in Amsterdam when they were starting out and how they would do twelve hours of playing with very short breaks in-between in these clubs for months at a time. If you sit down and tally up all the time they were practicing and honing their craft, he comes out with this ten thousand hour thing. He does that with Bill Gates and others. The point is, the audience sees the finished product, sees the finished Beatles. They don't know all the hours that went in behind and may I say kids who grow up with Idol have the mistaken belief that there's not a lot of hard work that goes into it. They just need to be "discovered."

Q - I'm familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers and his ten thousand hours theory. When The Beatles want to Hamburg, Germany, they did not play eight hours a night. That's a myth that's been floating out there and probably started by John Lennon. There were three or four bands that would perform each night at one of these clubs. They would rotate. Each band would do a forty-five minute set or an hour set and the next band would come on. No band could play eight hours a night or twelve hours a night. Their voices and their fingers just wouldn't hold up. After your set, you could stay in the bar and watch the other bands or go back to where you were staying. But The Beatles did not play eight solid hours. Did you know that?

A - No, I didn't.

Q - Where Malcolm Gladwell got his ten thousand hours formula from, I have no idea. What' I'm telling you makes sense. Nobody could sing for eight hours a night, seven days a week for a three month period. It couldn't be done. Your voice just couldn't handle it, nor could your fingers. The Beatles had it all.

A - There's a lot of what Mick Jagger was saying; Some of it was luck. Some of it was right time, right place.

Q - When American Idol goes off the air, it's going to be one less opportunity for kids to showcase their talent. Where the drinking age used to be eighteen, it's now twenty-one. Tougher D.U.I. laws are in effect. The idea of going the bar room route to get "discovered" is practically over.

A - Well, what they do is make a YouTube video in their basement and put it out there. That's another thing. They do that.

Q - The world looks to America to lead in entertainment, whether we're talking about music, film, or television and now that American Idol is going off the air, there's nothing to replace it.

A - Well, I don't know. It's not the same show, but again The Voice is a talent show. If you want to make the argument there's no comparison you can, but to a casual viewer you sit there and say, "Well, it's a singing competition." Now, yes there's the coaching element that's different, but when you come down to it, it's still a talent show. I agree that Idol is a passing, that a chapter has closed, but I guess I'm not as convinced that nobody else can do what Idol did. In fact, the franchise continues in other countries, right?

Q - Right.

A - It's run it's cycle here. You know, it may come back. After it's rested for a few years, who knows? It wouldn't be the first time that a game show or a reality show or whatever has had a period of time off the air and returned.

Q - I've heard it said it might not go off the air. A part of the show I don't understand is where they take a singer who clearly has a Country voice and make that person sing Disco. It's awkward.

A - Well again, what the show wants, different from what a music label might want, is entertainment value. One of the things American Idol has always gotten big audiences for is the early show when they show some of the terrible auditions, some of the people who were either really dumb and don't realize that they have no talent or they know and they're just doing it to be on television. For some people that's success, I was seen on television. That's not my fifteen minutes of fame, but my fifteen seconds of fame. Look, I was on national TV! For some people that's what they're looking for, a little bit of exposure that way.

Q - And then you have people stepping forward and before they even sing they're telling a sub-story. And you know, before they even open their mouth, they're going to be put through.

A - That's endemic of reality television. If you think about other genres, not talent competitions, like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Dancing With The Stars, earlier seasons there's a lot more of the competition whether it's dancing or building home construction projects. As the series progresses, in order to make it more dramatic, you need to do something to keep the audience coming back. Shows get stale. So one of the things they attempt to do is to increase the drama.

Q - What do you teach at Ball University?

A - Well, I teach Media Law. I teach Media Ethics and Social Responsibility. I have an Honors Colloquium on reality television, which is a lot of fun. Those are the ones I've taught most, probably. There's probably a total of twelve or thirteen different courses that I have at one time or another taught. There's a course in the graduate course that I teach, Approaches To Creativity. I have taught courses in Sales, Writing. It's pretty varied. You do what you have to do. (laughs)

Q - Are you a former news anchor?

A - No. I was a camera guy. For seven whole months I worked in television news. Seven whole months between my undergraduate and graduate programs. That was it.

Q - I've heard that students graduating from Broadcast Journalism schools face a real challenge in getting good paying jobs.

A - Well, it all depends. The fact of the matter is, we will crank through in our program in telecommunications at Ball State somewhere in the order of two hundred and some students this year (2016) that will graduate from our program. The top ten percent walk right into jobs. I don't mean in small markets either. They're not walking into New York and Los Angeles, but I mean one of my graduates works for Oprah, Harpo Productions. One of our kids graduated from here and went straight to Oklahoma, then he went to Seattle. I've got a young lady doing news in Dayton, Ohio. The top, say ten percent, have absolutely no problem. The bottom ten percent will probably never be employed in media. It's the middle eighty percent, the ones who hustle, who've done internships and the ones who've been actively involved while they were in school and all this sort of stuff, it'll make a difference. For some it's not going to be easy when they get out.

Q - If I was in your class, after this conversation, I would hope that I would've gotten an A+.

A - (laughs)

Q - Nothing less!

A - I don't give A pluses. There's no such thing. An A is an A. (laughs)

Q - Just an A?

A - Just an A. There are no A pluses. There's no such thing. You can't do better than the best. (laughs)

Q - I guess I'll just have to settle for an A.

A - You'll have to settle for that. Right.


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