American Idol Reform

Here is an old post from March 2, 2013.
This past Thursday the Nielsen Ratings indicated that Wednesday’s American Idol broadcast’s ratings have dropped to their lowest since Season 1. This does not surprise me. I have casually watched American Idol since Season 1, and have been an avid viewer for six seasons now. Over the course of its duration on Fox, American Idol has transformed itself for the better and for the worse. Recently it has been for the worse. I will indicate several reasons to explain American Idol’s lessened ability to attract viewership, and suggest how to create a better quality show that will not only attract new viewers, but re-attract old viewers.
American Idol has new competitors in the form of music singing competitions; however, there is a stark difference between American Idol and the two musical reality shows. The Voice and The X-Factor have shifted the emphasis from the Rags-to-Riches story to Reality TV in the form of drama within the judges. For those interested in Demi Lovado’s most recent spat with Simon Cowell, or which contestant Cee-Lo Green will steal from Christina Aguilera, this is a great approach. It reaches to a niche market. However, this is not the traditional ratings-busting American Idol audience. Certainly judge drama has always existed on Idol, the producer’s decision to hire Ellen Degeneres, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, and Keith Urban clearly indicates Idol’s intention to create a judge-emphasized show.
American Idol has become a circus in order to showcase, bolster, or rejuvenate the careers of the judges.  Instead of judging they have the appearance of flapping their mouths, because they are more interested in their own career, creating a direct conflict of interest. Their job is to make judgment which reflects the ability of the contestant, but instead their statements reflect how they want to be viewed by the public. Ellen DeGeneres was honest enough to leave the show after only one season, because she realized that she was not willing to “be the bad guy” and risk her fans not liking her. It is true that Paula Abdul always struggled with this, but at least she was only one person. Aside from Randy Jackson, every judge has had this conflict of interest since Kara DioGuardi left the show. The judges ought to spend more time judging and less time running lipstick commercials and featuring their new music videos (J-Lo).
American Idol has seen its ratings drop because they only cater to some Americans, and are not fully tapping into American musical potential. American Idol does a poor job in recruiting, particularly because of their regional bias. I love southern music, but I now find myself rooting for anyone that is not from the South. Other than Lee Dewyze, every American Idol winner is from the South. Not so coincidentally, aside from L.A. and New York, most of the audition sights are also in the South. What would American Idol look like if the auditions took place in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Northern California, Phoenix, Omaha, Milwaukee, New England, Washington D.C., Honolulu, or Billings? Typically Idol picks core southern cities, L.A., New York, and then one or two random non-traditional sights (this year it was Chicago). There is a greater market that American Idol is not tapping into.  Unless American Idol wants to change its name to Confederate Idol, I would suggest incorporating and representing the rest of America.
Judges have a great power, not only in recruiting candidates, but steering them too. Ever since Simon Cowell left Randy Jackson has taken over the show as De Facto head honcho. He, and whoever is under his sphere of influence has an over infatuation with the phrase to “have a moment.” There is a very strong correlation with a contestant having a moment and a contestant wailing out a really big note, typically from three fourths the way through the song to the end of the song. If a contestant does not have a “moment,” or in other words, if they don’t belt out a really big note, then are subject to the judges scorn. This puts unjust pressure on contestants, because ultimately many evolve themselves to be something that the judges are looking for. Preference is always given to wailers like Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez, Adam Lambert, and this year’s Zoanette Johnson (despite her perpetual state of flatness). I don’t think American Idol viewers have forgiven the judges for not standing up for Colton Dixon because he couldn’t have a Randy Jackson “moment.” Remember Danny Gokey who was pressured into having an Aerosmith moment, and flubbed his big note which contributed to his American Idol demise.
In order to rectify these ills, Idol needs to expand its audience and go back to its roots. Adding more audition locations in different parts of the country is a start, but right now they need to work on the judge problem. The first thing Idol should do is fire Nicki Minaj, preferably mid-season. Idol is no stranger to controversy. They did not seem to have a problem with publicly dismissing Jermaine Jones for his criminal record during Season 11. Nicki is an embarrassment to American Idol. I thought it was interesting that they would hire a rapper to judge, yet they do not allow rappers in the competition. Aside from being outside her expertise, she spends more time fixing her hair and wooing attractive male contestants than she does judging. And when she is judging she typically says something like, “I just didn’t like it.” If they needed someone to give their opinion, I could do that job. A judge’s job is to indicate why they don’t like it. Could you imagine going to an art show where the judge said, “I gave this piece the blue ribbon, but I don’t know why, I just liked it more than the others.” This formula is not working.
American Idol needs to maintain its judge integrity for the long-term. We all know that Randy Jackson will not be around forever, and many Idol watchers want to know what will happen when he leaves. Idol must hire someone right now to take his place for the long run, preferably a low-profile record producer or an expert on music. When Randy leaves, Idol needs to maintain at least two low-profile judges. This allows contestants to receive fair unbiased criticism, and it allows for a second valid opinion without conflict of interest. Idol may reserve one or two seats (preferably one) for a celebrity talking head whose job is to give comments, be charming, and attract viewership.
What makes American Idol special is that it gives voice to the contestants. Be refocusing its program on its contestants, and not its judges Idol will quickly regain its Nielsen Ratings prominence. America loves the story of the young girl, or young man who had nothing, and became a superstar. This distinction separates the show from its competitors, and Idol has lost that vision. When people watch T.V. they want to see themselves, and inside each of those contestants there is a little piece of each of us who wants a piece of the American Pie.
Brian King, Mesa, AZ.
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