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TV series Popstars, which aired in New Zealand for a single season in 1999, is more significant for what it spawned than the show itself, which was pure pop eye candy.
Over nine 30 minute episodes, Popstars followed the fortunes of a manufactured all-girl pop band called TrueBliss, who recorded an album and had a string of chart-topping hits in New Zealand.
A forerunner of the late 1990s reality television explosion, the show was devised by independent TV producer Jonathan Dowling, who was working out of a small office in Grey Lynn in Auckland when he devised the Popstars concept. Dowling's timing was immaculate, but he likely had no idea how wildly successful the format would become. He sold the series concept to Screentime Australia, who then onsold it to the United Kingdom, before it was picked up by more than 50 countries worldwide.
Versions of Popstars were made in England, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, South Africa, Argentina and Indonesia. It was also sold to Warner Brothers in the United States, a first for a New Zealand-created format. Dowling and the show's director Bill Toepfer received royalties from each sale of the format, but Dowling told NZ Herald reporter Louisa Cleave in 2000 that they did not stand to make millions: "I'm at the end of a very long food chain and there will be a little bit of food... [Screentime head] Des Monaghan had the resources and skills and contacts to make this deal and I'm very impressed. It shows that ideas travel and a good idea can come from anywhere."
Post Popstars, television producers like Touchdown's Julie Christie realised that the smart money was in selling formats, and focussed much of their business on creating series concepts they could onsell to the world.
For the five girls selected to be in TrueBliss, the show was life changing. In New Zealand, Carly Binding, Keri Harper, Joe Cotton, Megan Alatini and Erika Takacs became household names, enjoyed a rabid pre-teen following, and prompted near riots at shopping malls on their sold-out nationwide tour.
Their first single Tonight topped the local music charts, and a double platinum album followed. Peter Urlich (formerly frontman of Th' Dudes, and later a successful DJ and one half of Nice 'n' Urlich), played the band's manager on the show, and went on to become their mentor post-show.
Out of the five girls, Carly Binding has had the most successful post-TrueBliss solo career musically, with six top 40 hits and gold-selling album Passenger. In 2007; Joe Cotton was the winner of Pop's Ultimate Star, which pitted talent from Popstars, NZ Idol and So you Wannabe a Popstar? against each other. She went on to present for C4's Jono's New Show. Erika Takcas presented music show RTR Countdown.
The German version of Popstars proved one of the most successful, running for nine seasons. Although the show has now died out in most other territories, it remains one of the most successful television formats of all time. Popstars is credited as the precursor for Simon Fuller's Pop Idol/American Idol franchise, long one of the major players in the reality TV spectrum.
- Journalist Bianca Zander has written two novels (The Girl Below and The Predictions) and scores of articles, including stories for The Listener and the Sunday Star-Times. She lectures in creative writing at Auckland University of Technology.