2011 – On this day in Rock, ‘American Idol’ aims to stay relevant, nurture performers
New judges, new rules, no Simon: This is American Idol?TV’s No. 1 show returns for its 10th season Wednesday (Fox, 8 p.m. ET/PT) with its biggest makeover yet, amid questions about the juggernaut’s future after four years of declining ratings and what was widely seen as a lackluster season that has yielded fewer record sales than any previous edition.
Judge Simon Cowell— arguably Idol‘s top draw — is gone, as are judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi, replaced by two well-known entertainers: Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
Idol has lowered its eligibility age for contestants by a year to 15, overhauled middle rounds that traditionally have been the lowest-rated shows of the season, shifted its schedule from Tuesday-Wednesday to Wednesday-Thursday, and added a mentor, recording executive Jimmy Iovine, who will polish singers’ performances with a team of big-name record producers.
Q&A: Rushfield sings out about ‘Untold Story’IDOL CHATTER: All the latest on the upcoming seasonPHOTOS: See the show’s stars
Those involved with the show acknowledge the stakes. “Obviously, we’ve done it for a long time, and fortunately the show has been successful, but I think this is a crucial year for us,” host Ryan Seacrest says. “The stakes are high because we’ve got new infusions to the show. If we get it right, it will be a high return.”
MJ Santilli of Idol-centric MJ’s Big Blog (mjsbigblog.com) says Idol is at a crossroads.
“With falling ratings and failing music sales and Simon Cowell leaving, something has to happen to rejuvenate the franchise,” she says. “I could see Idol going on for many years, but if they’re going to remain culturally relevant, they have to have a really big year this year.”
Idol producers say change is standard for a long-running show — not an overreaction to ratings declines or an act of desperation.
“I think this is the most creative year for Idol,” says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who returned after two years away. “We’ve been put in a position now where the show needed a shake-up. (It’s) 10 years old.”
The biggest change — and the one that critics say could do the most damage to Idol— is the loss of Cowell, who is working on a U.S. version of his hit talent show in the United Kingdom, The X Factor. The acerbic Brit, known for a mix of music savvy, wit and a tinge of nastiness, made Idol a phenomenon when the American version of England’s Pop Idol launched in 2002.
“Without Simon, I’m not sure how successful Idol would have been, regardless of how good (Season 1 winner) Kelly Clarkson was,” says Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Rodney Ho. “How much will viewers miss Simon’s commentary? That’s the question.”
At the same time, Ho says, Cowell seemed less interested last season, which contributed to a less-than-ideal judging panel. The show’s producers acknowledge that there was a lack of chemistry on the panel.
Simon is now the competition
Adding to the loss of Cowell, some wonder whether his X Factor, a singing competition that premieres on Fox in the fall, could cut into Idol‘s buzz and popularity. Unlike Idol, which allows singers 15 to 28 years old, X Factor has no upper age limit, and the judges serve as mentors. Seacrest says the shows are different enough for both to succeed.
“Knowing (Idol) needs to reinvent itself, knowing that if they did just phone it in this season and produce just a lackluster champion, you have the strong possibility of X Factor coming in and stealing their thunder and their zeitgeist. I think there’s this tremendous pressure to show they’re still relevant,” says Richard Rushfield, author of the upcoming American Idol: The Untold Story.
Executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz says Idol isn’t making the mistake of trying to replace Cowell with a facsimile.
“You can’t, and it would be foolish to try to do that,” she says. “If you go, ‘We’re going to find another slightly nasty British (recording) executive,’ people would reject that because that person would never live up to what Simon is. That’s a recipe for disaster. In our very humble opinion, the only thing you can do is try to create a panel that’s entertaining, likable and credible.”
In taped audition sessions sent to the press, lone holdover judge Randy Jackson takes more of a leadership role, Lopez shows a mix of sweetness with some Bronx attitude, and Tyler has the kind of spontaneity and unpredictability that once made Paula Abdul a can’t-miss attraction on the panel.
“I’m very happy with the chemistry,” Frot-Coutaz says. “They’re getting on really well. They’re interesting. They look great.”
The judges will be “very measured in what they say on a negative basis” and focused more on the singers who advance, Lythgoe says. “They are taking the ones remaining in the program and guiding them, and suggesting what to do to improve.”
An audience grows up
Despite a 9% ratings drop last season and complaints that it was sluggish, Idol easily remained TV’s No. 1 show (24.1 million viewers), a status it has held for seven years. Even if it has a similar ratings decline this year, it would be TV’s top show.
Curiosity about the new judges could boost initial viewership when Idol opens with audition episodes next week in New York/New Jersey and New Orleans, but a hit show in its 10th season isn’t likely to add audience overall, says Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate, who expects Idol to remain TV’s top show.
“Ideally, what Fox would like to see is that whatever audience erosion takes place be minimal, that these judges will click and the move to Wednesday and Thursday will work,” he says.
Idol remained TV’s top show with advertiser-prized young adults (ages 18-49) and teens (12-17) as well, but the median age of viewers has risen from 32 to 45 over nine seasons.
“It’s kind of become a little passé for the last several years with younger people. People who grew up with American Idol and watched the first couple of seasons, they might have been in elementary or junior high or even high school. I don’t think they’re watching now. They’re watching Jersey Shore,” Adgate says.
Idol, once at the forefront of technology with text voting, should be more involved with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, Lythgoe says. “What can we do to bring (younger viewers) back? I think it’s get onboard the new technology.”
After any initial boost in audience due to interest in the judges, the focus will be on the contestants, producers say. The show will ultimately sink or swim on the talent and personalities of the singers.
“As Nigel has always said, the importance of the judges is far overstated. The show should not be about the judges, it should be about the contestants,” Rushfield says. In recent seasons, “the judges consumed so much oxygen in every show that you felt these kids just didn’t have a chance to introduce themselves and break through.”
The show faltered last season in its effort to create a star, Newsday pop music critic Glenn Gamboa says. Some of the changes “show they’re trying to make the show back into a guaranteed superstar creator the way it was in the Carrie Underwood years,” he says. “This year, with (Season 9 winner) Lee DeWyze not doing very well (in record sales), they kind of feel they need to bump that up, or else why are people watching the show?”
Lopez disagrees with such star-production criticism. “I feel the track record has been pretty good. There’s like a one-in-a-million chance for somebody to become a superstar, and in nine years, I think they have three, four really big names who have really big careers. That’s a pretty good ratio. Are we going to find one? I think so. I really do. If not a couple.”
To help achieve that, Idol is making a bigger effort to groom the talent during the run of the show, adding Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Iovine and record producers including Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Polow da Don, Timbaland and Ron Fair to assist with musical arrangements and other performing elements.
“My role, I think, is to help make sure that we find an original voice, somebody with originality and feeling and is singing with their own voice rather than singing like someone else,” Iovine says. “They will be picking their own songs, but I help with coaching. … They have to improve every week, and I believe in the past they weren’t really getting the proper help to improve every week.”
Idol fan Clarke Brown, 56, of Anchorage was pleased to hear of Iovine’s involvement. “It shows they’re more serious about creating a star than just creating a show.”
More singers get to Hollywood
The biggest structural change is the shrinking of the semifinal round, an annual ratings trough between the popular auditions and live finals. Instead, Idol is adding a week to the Hollywood round, the first step for singers who survive the initial auditions. About 325 singers, more than ever, were brought to Hollywood, providing a greater number of contestants with a chance to shine.
That group eventually was cut to 60, who went to Las Vegas to perform Beatles songs on the stage of Cirque du Soleil’s Love, a Beatles-tribute show. The 40 surviving that process entered another phase in episodes being taped this week, performing a song selected by Iovine and his producers and one of their own, including original compositions.
From that group, the judges were to choose 20 semifinalists. In the first live shows in early March, those singers will go before viewers, who will get the chance to vote five men and five women into the finals. Judges’ wild-card picks will follow.
Other changes include:
•Lowering the eligibility age to 15. “There were a couple of kids who were 15 and sing so good. I was like, ‘Where did you get that from?’ I thought you had to play clubs 10 years to be that good,” Tyler says. “The kids sing so much better than when I was young. … People are listening to music so much now, like a million hours by the time they’re in their 20s.”
•Limiting musical instruments in performances. Frot-Coutaz says last year’s performers, which included a fair number of indie singer/songwriter types, essentially hid behind their guitars, with less-than-engaging visuals. Along those same lines, the show is making more of an effort to find bigger personalities. “We’ve had some talented people in the past, but I feel we’ve got some talented people who have a little bit more personality and star potential,” Jackson says. “Now, rather than just being a good singer, you need to have something interesting about you, your voice, personality.”
•Bringing in a new music director, Ray Chew, and reworking the set.
And other changes are being considered, such as whether to show video from the house where the finalists stay, Lythgoe says. “Don’t think Big Brother. Think of it as another opportunity to see real situations and how people react that get you to know the person.”
Lopez, a longtime Idol fan, praises the adjustments but says loyal viewers will find that the basic DNA of the show remains unaltered. “It’s the same show in the sense that it’s about singing and these kids doing this competition,” she says. “It’s not changing it so drastically, just adding new elements here and there.”