Viewers of TV-talent-shows often complain “It’s a set up”. This is to be expected. Talent show footage is edited for dramatic effect, so viewers might spot an editing anomaly and exclaim “foul!” Even live broadcasts involve the selection of shots and camera angles and other decisions which affect viewer perceptions. Then there are the various ways that recruiting agents and directors choose to present a contestant, say by emphasising “sob stories” and downplaying other aspects of the person.
In most cases, one can shrug and say “That’s TV for you”. The shows are entertainment and are ultimately about ratings. What do you expect? Our first video is about Chris Sebastian’s 2020 journey to winning The Voice Australia in 2020. More than any other accusation of “set up”, Sebastian’s win divided Australian and New Zealand viewers of the show. The issue was Chris Sebastian is The-Voice-Australia-coach Guy Sebastian’s brother. Before we dig further, let’s have a look at the video.
The video has 10.7M views in three years. Most of the YouTube comments are favourable. Natalee Walker asserts: “He didn’t win because he’s Guy Sebastian’s brother, he won because of his talent.” VAKLANGTWA says, “Chris Sebastian is such a great singer. His vocals are insanely good plus his commanding stage presence. I can’t even imagine him being compared to his brother as they have different singing styles. Guy is a classic ballad + RNB singer while Chris is RNB + Pop Ballad”.
Immediately after the winner of The Voice Australia 2020 was announced, Twitter lit up with accusations that the show was rigged. Exemplifying this response, Pete Dillon tweeted “Anyone else feeling like the result has some optics issues? Brother a judge, other contestants far more talented and interesting. I can’t enter a cooking show because 30+ years ago I qualified as a chef.” The issue was covered in newspapers across Australia and New Zealand. Here’s Chris’s post-Voice single Wasted on Me.
Let’s spool back a bit. Guy Sebastian won the first Australian Idol in 2003. In 2012 his younger brother Chris appeared on the first season of The Voice Australia. Chris was eliminated in the quarter finals. Speaking of his first time on The Voice, Chris has said, “They did a lot of things that they weren’t meant to, like after my performance they played my brother’s song. And the whole point was for me to have my own identity… So it was a bit of a crappy experience.” This is worth noting, as it shows that Chris Sebastian is aware that editorial and directorial decisions can influence both a competitor’s experience of the show and public perceptions of the artist.
In 2019, multi-award-winner Guy Sebastian became a coach on The Voice Australia. Speaking of his decision to participate on the 2020 season, Chris has said he turned down a number of invitations to reappear on The Voice before accepting in 2020. “That’s how all these shows work. It’s a casting process. They go out and look for people they think are going to be great on the show. I spoke to many people on the show and a lot of them were invited to audition.” An obvious point is that it was one thing to be asked to appear before 2019, and another thing to audition after his brother became involved with the programme. Chris discussed his 2020 appearance with his brother before entering, and Guy was happy with it.
This is where it gets interesting. Aggrieved viewers pointed out that the terms and conditions for contestants state that family members of staff are not allowed to take part. Channel Nine responded that Chris was exempt from these rules as he was an All Star (a previous contestant). A spokesperson said, “All Stars do not apply to appear in the program through open casting due to the unique situation of having previously appeared on the show. The T&Cs on My Casting Net are for direct applicants to the program only”. So Chris got in on a loophole, but one would have expected both Guy and Chris to be more conscious of “the optics”, especially since Chris was trying to step out of his brother’s shadow. Guy should have said, “Have a go on another TV show. If you win the Voice, it will look bad”.
There is a good reason that friends and family of staff are excluded from The Voice. Even unconscious bias can influence a contestant’s chances. Editing and directorial decisions do impact on a contestant’s popularity. So even if the decision on who wins is made by public vote, as on The Voice, it doesn’t preclude a contestant having an unfair advantage, however slight. As it turns out, the public vote for the best of the four finalists was extremely tight. A Channel Nine spokesperson said: “The public vote for The Voice winner is highly regulated, operated by an independent third party, and overseen by lawyers. This year’s result is the tightest ever, with less than half a percent of the votes separating the winner and runner-up.”
To complicate matters further, The Voice 2020 was affected by Covid19 restrictions. Kelly Rowland and Boy George were forced to coach their artists remotely (Marcia Hines and The Veronicas helped out as guest mentors). This would have given the Australia-based Delta Goodrem and Guy Sebastian more influence over the production than they otherwise would have. Also, two New Zealand contenders had to step down, and were substituted by eliminated Battle contestants.
Chris Sebastian’s goal was to step out of his brother’s shadow and forge ahead with a music career of his own. This has not happened to any significant extent. In its article on The Voice Australia winners, Refinery29’s comment on Chris Sebastian states: “Some called his victory controversial as he is Guy Sebastian’s brother, but Chris Sebastian’s spectacular vocal ability speaks for itself. After releasing singles such as Hard to Get to Love and Wasted on Me, he has continued recording renditions for social media while balancing his family life.”