It’s the talent competition that makes a virtue of its silliness – Australian host Osher Gunsberg calls it „the most ridiculous show on television” – but The Masked Singer’s security measures are no joke.
Its celebrity contestants must shroud themselves in black fabric before arriving at the studio, then wait their turn to pass through a Get Smart-style succession of doors that prevent them glimpsing each other out of costume. Backstage, they wear t-shirts that command: „DO NOT TALK TO ME”.
Only four Network Ten executives know their identities; even the wardrobe assistants have no idea who they’re disguising as a pink-haired unicorn or a nine-foot prawn with an eyepatch.
Once filming begins, their speaking voices are electronically altered but their singing is not.
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Studio audience members cast their votes and at the end of each episode, the lowest-scoring star pulls off their mask – but not before the audience is kicked out and the set has been swept for bugs and hidden cameras. (In the edit suite, producers make it appear as though the crowd witnesses the unmasking.) And when the evicted singer returns to their family, they must account for their whereabouts with a contractually-obligated fib.
Not every suspicious spouse could be placated. „We had to make a couple of exceptions so [the contestants] could ‚fess up to their husband or wife,” admits Shaun Murphy, the head of television for production company Warner Bros.
Based on a South Korean format, The Masked Singer‚s various international adaptations have notched up half a billion viewers, including those watching clips on YouTube. In the US, it became the highest-rating unscripted series debut since 2011; in Australia, it delivered more than 1.56 million viewers nationally to Ten, giving the network its strongest programme launch in almost five years.
„We deliberately made it more of a guessing game than a singing show,” Murphy says. „It’s a bit like Shrek [in terms of family appeal]. It has the colour and costumes that kids love while the guessing panel makes jokes for the adults.”
That panel includes comedian Dave Hughes, radio host Jackie O, singer Dannii Minogue and US actor Lindsay Lohan, whose tabloid-documented woes include pleading no contest to stealing a necklace from an upscale jeweller, stints in rehab and jail, and being photographed falling into a cactus. With her Masked Singer shoot marking her first visit to Australia, Lohan was predictably baffled when former Big Brother host Gretel Killeen revealed herself as the first evictee. This triggered a flurry of memes and gags on Twitter.
„It wouldn’t surprise me [if she was hired for that reason],” says Ian Warner, a partner and analyst at Moonlighting Media.
„Social media buzz is essential in attracting the younger viewers Ten wants – and that’s what they achieved. It’s a potential game-changer for the rest of the year because Ten have good programmes coming up like The Amazing Race, The Bachelorette and the Spring Racing Carnival. A TV network is its own best promotional platform so of course Ten will advertise the hell of these shows during The Masked Singer.”
Beverley McGarvey, Ten’s chief content officer, is considering extending the programme’s six-week run when it returns next year – but only slightly.
„It’s not a format that stretches terribly well,” she says. „It works better as event television like Ninja Warrior or Lego Masters. You get in, make a splash and get out.”
Family-friendly programming, McGarvey adds, is notoriously tricky: formats that appeal to children and parents often provoke eye rolls from teenagers.
„But this is genuinely a show that everyone can sit down and watch together,” she says. „Even if you’re 18 and you’re pretty cool, it’s silly enough to watch with your friends. In the current climate, TV-wise and politically, people want something that’s fun and funny and feel-good.”