Friday, August 13, 2004

COVER STORY: The countdown begin...

After all the drama, confusion, twists, the day of reckoning is finally here for the six finalists of reality hit show ‘Akademi Fantasia II’. HAFIDAH SAMAT writes. THEY are already household names - big stars... even without having to cut solo albums. "The Konsert Akademi Fantasia VCDs (RM19.90), featuring them, which are sold almost immediately after their weekly performances are snapped up like hot cakes," says one record store retailer in Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur.

Her benchmark for comparison is none other than three of the current top local flavours in the country, Siti Nurhaliza, Too Phat and Ruff Edge.

"And when the fans buy the albums, they would usually take up several volumes at one go. They don't care if during the concert some of the contestants on the show sound flat or go out of tune. They (the participants) can do no wrong." Yet another good gauge of the participants immense popularity - even the pirates are churning out copies! But the burning question every fan of this reality talent show is dying to find out this Saturday - who will emerge the biggest star of them all.

Among the finalists, who will it be? Zahid, Adam, Kaer, Bob, Farah or Linda? Picture this. It is 8.30pm. The show's inimitable host Aznil Nawawi dashes onto the stage to the cheers of the audience at the packed Stadium Putra in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur. He delivers the opening sequence in his usual fashion as the camera pans the finalists. Zahid, the "darling" of the Baharuddin household from Wangsa Maju, KL, has a cheeky, goofy grin and looks relaxed. Adam, the super-cool aspiring rapper from Sabah, looks more serious than usual. The smile has gone from Farah's ever-smiling face and Kaer looks equally nervous. Bob, yes, that friendly guy from Sarawak, can only manage a nervous smile while Linda, the beauty from Sabah, maintains her composure as she waves to the near-hysterical audience in the auditorium. This is THE night of reckoning for these finalists. Will Zahid, who hams it up for the camera big time in almost each weekly concert, be able to garner more votes from his ever-growing fan base? Or will Linda be able to charm viewers with that pretty, sweet smile? And how about Farah? Will she outshine them? Will Bob upstage the rest with his impressive vocals and versatility? Will the crowd's cheers uplift Kaer's spirits to give his all? As for Adam, the current joint leader with Zahid, he may just mesmerise the audience and tip the scales. At the end of the show, before Aznil reads the results, he would again probably say either "your votes are sending someone back to reality..." or "your votes are your choice so vote wisely...." On Saturday, your SMS votes, which constitute 80 per cent of the total votes, will determine who drives home the new Citroen C3 (worth approximately RM120,000) and wins the RM10,000. As expected, AF fans are getting feverish in anticipation of a spectacular night at the 3 1/2-hour finals. Each singer will perform two solos - a cover version and a new composition - backed by live music led by a renowned composer. Sure fans want to embrace the sassy Zahid for his vocal versatility and stage presence during the rendition of the late Indonesian crooner Broery Marantika's Biar Bulan Bicara Sendiri and Milikku by Cat of Ruffedge. They hope the R&B-inclined Kaer will sweep them off their feet with his performance of Michael Buble's Latin-tinged Sway and composer Johan Farid Khairuddin's (JFK) Kau Kembali. They are clappin' with Adam, known for his rappin' ability, jiggying to the tune of KRU's Ooh! La! La followed by Haruskah, a ballad by composer-singer Ajai. They want Bob to mesmerise with his vocal prowess with his near-perfect pitch as he tackles singer Hasnul Rahmat's Gadis Sarawak and Cinta Seorang Teman by composer-producer Adnan Abu Hassan. How they go "oooh" and "aaah" as Farah reaches the high note for love ballad Tangisan Dalam Kerinduan (also by Adnan) and Avril Lavigne's hit single Sk8er Boi. Meanwhile, Linda will be singing a Spanish tune, Solo Enti (Only You), and Ajai's Aku Cinta Kamu.

"We are trying our best to put up a good show for the finals," says Astro's Malay programing head Zainir Aminullah, adding that in the usual AF fashion, there will also be a "reunion" segment combining AF2 and AF1 students. To recap, the AF "fever" started in June when a group of wannabe singers auditioned for Astro's singing school Akademi Fantasia to realise their dreams. They were housed in a double-storey bungalow where 16 cameras were hooked up and a 80-member crew alternately took charge of them between 8am and 10pm as the 12 participants lived in isolation (no TV, radio or newspaper included) from the outside world for two months. The contestants were chosen from thousands of hopefuls at the auditions in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, and the show has been running on Astro Ria since the end of May with Tirai Akademi Fantasia, a 90-minute special introducing the 12 contestants. And on weekdays, viewers were treated to the 30-minute Diari Akademi Fantasia, which ran from Monday to Friday; a two-hour concert on Saturday nights; and a portrait of an ex-contestant in Imbasan Akademi Fantasia on Sundays, and now on Saturday, the final. (The final will be carried live over Astro Ria from Stadium Putra in Bukit Jalil, KL at 8.30pm.) The show has become a phenomenon. Arguably, no other locally-produced programme has come close to achieving the sort of following the hit reality show enjoyed in its 10-week run over Astro Ria. Compared with last year, the SMS volume has increased three- to four-fold. That reality trend will continue to grow as producers explore the limits of the format and as long as they continue to benefit from an inexpensive cast of "real" people seeking fame. The popularity of reality TV is not related to mainstream fictional shows. The No.1 reason viewers cite for the popularity of reality shows is that they are not yet as formulaic and predictable as typical TV dramas and sitcoms. Reality TV shows may have captured the attention of millions of viewers worldwide, but how "real" are they? Are the emotions of the players genuine? Are the dramas "manufactured"? Remember how the audience went berserk when favoured contestant Linda was shown the door in the sixth concert? How many hearts (and votes!) went out to the most famous dropout Mas, the single mother from Sabah, as she embraced her two toddlers and parents on stage at a recent concert? How the intensity heightened as AF took an unexpected twist when the academy's principal Ramli M.S. announced there would be six, not five, contestants for the finals? How, by some degree of viewers' generosity, we saw Linda's "re-admission" during the show's wildcard segment last Sunday? If anything, Linda's episode is a reminiscent of an open-and-shut case from a court room drama. Clearly, there were mixed reactions from the home "jurors" - primarily AF fans who waited impatiently for the "conviction" on the special edition of the show's Diari Akademi Fantasia last Sunday. While some jumped for joy, others were stunned and confused by the decision. The question that arises: why now? The show, says Zainir, has been formatted closely to that of its original programme, La Academia, produced by Mexico's TV Academia. "The ‘wildcard' segment is genuine and it has always been part of the show. It was a matter of time before we incorporated it into the show. We look at it as a positive and refreshing experience for viewers. "When we designed the show, SMS revenue was never an important issue. The show's format requires popularity so naturally SMS plays a crucial role in achieving audience participation," says Zainir. The SMS "hoopla" - the inclusion of the wildcard segment at the last stage of the show was the producers' strategy to secure higher mileage (read: MONEY) - he insists, "is not true." "Linda was a clear favourite from the start. She has gained a strong and huge following and her ‘episode' is a reflection of the evergrowing fan support. Mas' departure from the academy wasn't orchestrated. "There is no hidden agenda. As a broadcaster, we had no pre-conceived idea of the students who would advance to the finals." In anticipation of the finals, Zainir assures viewers that the telcos are also gearing up to avoid unforeseen circumstances. "We are ensuring the present systems are capable of supporting real-time voting during the show. We don't want any chaos and error to occur at all," he says.


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