Bravo found itself in a precarious position in the spring of 2008, when The Weinstein Company, producers of Bravo’s genre-defining reality competition Project Runway, announced Runway would decamp to Lifetime for its forthcoming sixth cycle. Runway’s departure critically damaged Bravo, for which Runway had become a tentpole and the most important element of its extreme brand makeover. The network recovered thanks in large part to Andy Cohen and his Real Housewives franchise, but it never stopped trawling for the next great artisanal reality competition.
Platinum Hit, a songwriting competition, was born of Bravo’s desire to launch the genre’s next phenomenon. When it premiered in April 2011, Bravo was already juggling Top Chef, Top Design, Shear Genius, Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist, and The Fashion Show, a tepid Runway replacement. The glut of these reality competitions smacked of desperation, but in fairness to Bravo, every network was trying to mimic the Runway formula. History’s Top Shot, Spike’s Ink Master, and Animal Planet’s Groomer Has It are just a few of the offerings to come out of the post-Runway reality boom. The phenomenon is easily explained: Reality competitions are wonderfully cheap to produce, including the luxurious prize packages, and when the best case scenario is a fortune-shifting success like Runway, it never hurts to try.
At least, it never hurts too badly. Reality shows have to perform catastrophically to be canceled after a single season, and Platinum Hit is among very few Bravo reality competitions to meet an ignoble, one-and-done fate. The show premiered with roughly 830,000 viewers, losing a full two-thirds of the audience for its lead-in, The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. The ratings only dropped from there, eventually plummeting so low the show was yanked from its Monday time slot and left to die on Fridays. In hindsight, it was a mercy killing. Platinum Hit wasn’t unfairly ignored or insufficiently marketed, it was judged and dismissed on its merits. For a show about songwriting, Platinum Hit had woefully little command of storytelling and structure.
The basic concept was sensible in light of the reality television zeitgeist. Singing competitions were all the rage in 2011, and NBC’s The Voice, the only show to beat Fox’s American Idol at its own game, premiered just weeks before Platinum Hit debuted. It was inevitable for someone to pitch a show exploring the craft that goes into the songs the Kelly Clarksons and Carrie Underwoods of the world interpret. That mastermind turned out to be Evan Bogart, a prolific, Grammy-winning songwriter with credits on songs recorded by pop titans including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez. Bogart’s long reach within the industry helped him land heavy hitters to round out the show. Jewel came aboard as the show’s host and one of its judges, and she was joined by Kara DioGuardi, who was fresh off two seasons as an Idol judge. The final judge’s slot was shared by Trevor Jerideau and Keith Naftaly, A&R executives with RCA/Jive Records, the label that would extend the show’s winner a record contract to go with the $100,000 cash prize. On paper, Platinum Hit looked like it was bound for success, if only relative to its cost. Instead, it became the perfect case study on how reality competitions fall short.
To his credit, Bogart didn’t try anything fancy, he took the genre’s standard template and applied it to making music. Each week, 12 aspiring songwriters is challenged to write a song to fit a topic, theme, or genre. In the first episode, the competitors have to write a song about Los Angeles, where Platinum Hit was filmed. In the second episode, they work on a dance-pop song, and in the third, a song about road trips. The show’s first competitive segment is the Hook Challenge, in which the contestants are given 30 minutes to write a hook within the episode’s parameters. The songwriters perform their hooks for Jewel and the guest judge of the week, a slot filled by impressive gets like Donna Summer, Ryan Tedder, and Rodney Jerkins. The judges select the best few hooks, and the writers flesh out their songs with help from their competitors, who are selected in a schoolyard pick. The finished songs are performed for the judges, who pick a best and worst song, and the judges eliminate a member of the losing team.
In some ways, the show’s format is ingenious. Group challenges produce the liveliest episodes of competition like this one, and forcing the songwriters to work in teams solved the logistical quandary of how to squeeze the songs and the stories into 44-minute episodes. But reality competitions live and die by how they’re cast and how they’re judged. The audience has to be able to connect with the competitors and invest in the human drama, and the competition has to seem reasonably constructed, fair, and meritocratic. It’s in the areas of casting and construction that Platinum hits the most bum notes.
Among the casting woes was the show’s lack of a genuine villain. The season certainly had a villain, and there’s a red herring in earliest moments of the pilot when 22-year-old folk rocker Nevin James describes his work: “I sing for the widow. I sing for the orphan. I sing for the person in this world that doesn’t have much of a voice. I am a leader of men. People look to me for direction and I try to give it to them as honestly as I can.” He then pitches the hook for his ode to L.A., which sounds so much like Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind,” the judges immediately call him on it. With that kind of first impression, it’s hard to imagine a more distasteful contestant.
Enter Nick Nittoli, a punk-pop songwriter who demonstrates his rebellious spirit by wearing a blue-grey contact over one of his brown eyes, to assume the villain mantle. Nittoli plays the role of the contestant who is as arrogant and sharp-elbowed as he is talented, and he leans into it so hard it’s actually funny. He describes soul diva Sonyae Elise as a “ghetto bitch from the hood” with zero provocation, considering he says it at the beginning of the second episode and he didn’t work with her in the first. He picks fights with the rest of the cast with insufficient justification. At one point, Nittoli actually says “I’m not here to make friends,” a statement of purpose so banal, it inspired a supercut nearly three years before Platinum Hit appeared. Reality villains are usually assembled during the post-production process, but Platinum Hit’s producers couldn’t choose their own villain with Nittoli photo-bombing every scene with a needlessly acidic bon mot.
Nittoli’s strategy for propelling himself through the competition is a shrewd one. In a reality competition, craft is important, but there’s no bigger sin than being a boring character. Unfortunately, his shtick is transparent from the beginning. When he announces in front of Jewel and the entire group that he doesn’t like Elise, she’s just as a surprised as anyone else. But he goes on to clarify that he doesn’t like anyone there. Nothing energizes a reality show like an openly hostile contestant, but when the groups actually break off to write the songs, Nittoli proves himself to be an affable, flexible collaborator who everyone loves to work with despite his prickly demeanor. The producers are forced to frame him as the villain by cutting together clips of him saying awful things and people saying awful things about him, but the story usually contradicts the identity the show is attempting to put forth.
The villain character is an essential part of any reality competition, but it was especially necessary for Platinum Hit because of the nature of its contestants. Compared to crafts like fashion design and gourmet cooking, songwriting is relatively egoless, as are Platinum Hit’s contestants. Runway, for example, attracts image-obsessed clotheshorses who throw so much shade they live in constant fear of old-growth loggers. They’re used to working alone, and are frequently eager to take the lion’s share of the credit for a team effort. For songwriters, collaboration is mandatory and commonplace, and it’s not unusual to share credit on a three-minute pop song with eight other people. On most artisanal reality competitions, forcing the contestants to work in groups would yield high drama, but Platinum Hit’s bunch is conditioned to be cooperative.
This is crucial because, in terms of creating drama, stoking interpersonal conflicts is Platinum Hit’s only play, another shortcoming rooted in the very nature of songwriting. These shows require ambitious ideas and the skill to execute them, and the most harrowing moments come out of the unforeseen complications during the execution phase. Unworkable materials and malfunctioning equipment forces the competitors to think on their feet and improvise solutions. There are vaguely similar crises in Platinum Hit, when a song isn’t coming together and the writers elect to start from scratch, but the emergencies are easily fixed considering all they have to do to turn a concept into reality is put pen to paper.
The shortcomings of the songwriting craft also manifest in the judging and elimination process, which is where Platinum Hit failed most dramatically. Because nearly every episode features a group challenge, there are usually three, and never more than four songs competing. With little output to evaluate, there isn’t a huge leap between the best and worst songs of the week. In an episode with three kind-of-decent songs—which is most episodes—the judges have to figure out which song is less kind-of-decent than the other two, then figure out which songwriter is most responsible for its incremental failure. This is no easy feat considering a collaboratively written song is far more difficult to split into discrete parts in order to assign blame.
It’s a process more akin to The Apprentice than Runway, but The Apprentice was never a pure meritocracy and thrived on how arbitrary its eliminations were. Platinum Hit had to appear to arrive at a fair result, but it employed a completely opaque process. Tellingly, the show doesn’t feature a segment in which the judges have a final discussion about the merits of each contestant before making a final decision, so the elimination debate is shrouded in mystery. (In fairness, the producers shot those segments, but cut them for time and made them available as web exclusives.) The most talented songwriters rise to the top, but its hard to figure out how they did so because of how the show is assembled. In the same way the show makes Nittoli its villain by stitching together talking heads of other contestants saying he’s an asshole, it tells the audience who the best songwriters are instead of showing them.
The audience can separate the wheat from the chaff on its own, and much of the fun in a show like Platinum Hit is seeing how your rankings compare to those of industry professionals. But Platinum Hit viewers had to choose their favorite songs and writers the same way the judges did: based almost exclusively on lyrics. The show structures its storytelling and eliminations primarily around lyrical content, as if it’s terrified of alienating the audience by delving too deeply into music theory and terminology. Unlike most artisanal reality competitions, Platinum Hit makes few attempts to explain concepts that would help the audience better judge the competition themselves. Unless a viewer came to Platinum Hit with working knowledge of how a song becomes a hit, the process and the standards remained murky. The audience didn’t have the option of latching onto impressive vocal performances—the element of a song most casual viewers have a feel for—because the songwriters performed the songs themselves. Those performances were usually terrible, but the quality of their vocals was irrelevant to the competition, much as they would be irrelevant in the industry. DioGuardi admitted to the show’s limited points of entry in an interview with TV Guide following the show’s third episode:
I mean, the first day it was like we were literally figuring out the show as we went along. It’s going to take maybe one more episode to start to see and understand these songwriters—why they’re there and what their lives are and how that translates into their music. […] But it does take a minute. And it’s a niche show. It’s for people who are interested in the process of songwriting. It’s a totally different thing. You’re not listening to their voices here.
The first part of DioGuardi’s quote is as telling as the last. Watching Platinum Hit, it’s evident that the producers fumbled early on and weren’t sure how a reality competition is supposed to go. In all but one of the 10 episodes, there’s no opportunity for contestants to win immunity in a future challenge, which is an integral element of any reality competition, especially one that thrives on group challenges. The exception is episode five, in which Elise is awarded immunity, thereby shielding her from elimination the following week. Predictably, the sixth episode is one of the season’s liveliest. Elise winds up on the losing team along with dance-pop expert Scotty Granger and genre polymath Jackie Tohn after failing to craft a satisfying country song. With Elise holding immunity, only Granger and Tohn are eligible to be cut, and they work much harder at defending their right to stay. In another moment illustrating the difficulty of the concept, the judges ask who wrote one of the song’s few sharp lyrics, and Tohn takes credit before Granger corrects her and says it was actually he who wrote the line. Tohn, who gets eliminated, seems genuinely unable to remember who did what in a highly collaborative, time-compressed process, much less convey the details of that process to the judges. At least by that point, the judges had more or less figured out how to cross-examine the songwriters to get as much information as possible.
Not until episode seven, “Somebody Is Lying,” does Platinum Hit become its best self. The final six contestants are paired off and given two hours to write as many hooks as possible, then put in front of Bogart, who asks them to pitch a hook for a specific artist. Elise and her partner, moody rocker Brian Judah, fail to find a rhythm and can only come up with one hook, a Counting Crows-style pop-rock tune called “Stranger To Love.” They’re in the lurch when Bogart asks them to pitch a song for Beyoncé, but Elise shrewdly bullshits Bogart, saying they “didn’t get a chance to get all the way to R&B,” but will make do with what they have. Elise and Judah rework the song on the spot, and within minutes, they’ve got a soulful rendition of “Stranger To Love” strong enough that Bogart says he would be comfortable pitching it to Beyoncé’s people. It’s what Runway’s Tim Gunn would call a “make it work moment,” and the scene that best represents what Platinum Hit could have been.
“Somebody Is Lying” is also the show’s best example of disharmony. Nittoli is paired with his nemesis, Johnny Marnell, one of the few contestants to be actually unsettled by Nittoli’s performed villainy. As usual, Nittoli belies his dickish demeanor and is fully amenable to working with Marnell in spite of their past beefs. But Marnell isn’t having it, and writes by himself in a corner while Nittoli tries unsuccessfully to engage him. They’re the last pair to pitch to Bogart, and the only pair to pitch to a drop-in guest, Gavin DeGraw, whose bluesy, blue-skies pop aligns with Marnell’s musical sensibility. Bogart and DeGraw love Marnell’s pitch for an uptempo love song called “All-Day Sunrise,” so Marnell writes the rest himself, boxing his teammate out of the process. Nittoli, furious, accuses Marnell of sabotaging the song to get him booted, a criticism that intensifies when the judges hate the insipid tune. The more likely explanation is that Marnell had an auspicious pitch meeting with a like-minded artist and wanted sole credit for the song should DeGraw decide to record it. Still, Nittoli’s confrontations with Marnell are the only moments of genuine conflict in a competition designed to produce it, and Marnell’s subsequent elimination is the show’s only truly surprising moment.
Alas, it came too late. By the time “Somebody Is Lying” premiered, the show had already been moved to the Friday death slot and its fate had been sealed. For what it’s worth, Platinum Hit did produce several appealing songs, all of which are still available on iTunes years after the show’s brief, unsuccessful run. The process didn’t work as television, but it put aspiring songwriters together and forced them to create under pressure. Between the risqué Euro dance-pop of “My Ridiculous,” the likable folk-pop of “Where I Need To Be,” or “My Religion,” the stirring ballad that earned Elise the Platinum Hit title, the music—good or bad—was far more interesting than the show for which it was created. The songs Platinum Hit created were often sound, even though the hour-length commercial for them was usually tone-deaf.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe, with a frequently catchy soundtrack.
Next: A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the modern-day Romeo And Juliet adaptation Skin flamed out in one season. LaToya Ferguson weaves its tale of woe.