friendly advice

You Can Be Better Next Season, American Idol. Here’s How.

 Devin Velez (L) is eliminated on AMERICAN IDOL
Devin Velez (L) is eliminated on AMERICAN IDOL Photo: Michael Becker / FOX

Dear American Idol:

Things have gotten a little strained between us in the last few months. We’ve been taking each other for granted; you’ve been emotionally distant, and we’ve been cheating on you with The Big Bang Theory. We could all walk away from this relationship right now if we chose to, but we want this to work. We love you, dammit. So as you take stock of your life and consider which changes to make for your next season, we’d like you to hear us out:

For God’s sake, get us out of here at a reasonable hour.
If there’s one thing we hate, it’s the feeling that our time is being wasted, and my God did you give us a lot to hate this season. When there were twelve contestants, the shows felt long, but at least there were stories to tell. Once we were down to the single digits, each two-hour show was stuffed full of pointless group numbers and promotional segments that even the least sophisticated viewer could sense were only there to run out the clock. Viewers might not flock toward shows that respect them, but we have a long and well-documented history of turning off shows that stop.

In your search for new judges, seek out new faces with perspective and personality.
They’re out there. I know that going for a big name would seem to be the solution for a show your size, but the opposite is true. Your format is the star. The real baller move would be to find a couple of people who aren’t super-famous but who have the combination of charisma and strong opinion that moves the show along. (And then one crazy person, because let’s be honest with ourselves here.)

Shelling out tens of millions for big names doesn’t pay off; taking a moment to find the right person for the job does. Kelly Ripa was a soap-opera supporting player when ABC gave her the Regis gig. By contrast, there was no mixture of star power and mental illness more potentially combustible than Britney Spears on The X Factor, yet people didn’t tune in for it. Stunt casting is for the upstarts. You’re American Idol. Act like it.

Don’t be so quick to get rid of Keith Urban.
He didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself this year, but those of us who were paying attention appreciated the sly mischief he brought to the table. He consistently kept his comments brief and relevant, he gently needled Mariah here and there, he grabbed Harry Connick Jr. by the hand and brought him to the judges’ table for the only substantive argument about music we got all season. Nicki got all the mean-judge juice, but Keith brought an understated playfulness and expertise to his job. He’s the only element of this season that left me wanting more.

If you put a gun threat on the table in act one, it had better go off in act two.
The feud between Nicki and Mariah simmered tantalizingly during the audition rounds, but once we got around to the live shows, the two of them mostly avoided eye contact and communicated via social media. If you’re going to turn over tens of millions of dollars and what seems like 60 percent of the actual show to your judging panel, it seems fair to obligate them to interact with one another. You can chemistry-test these people, the way any third-tier cable network would. Failing that, if they don’t get along, give them unlimited Red Bulls and a wiffle bat and let nature take its course. Nobody ever tuned into Dynasty to watch Alexis and Krystle tweet at each other.

Do theme nights, or do not do theme nights.
The American Idol we fell in love with forced its contestants to stretch. Sometimes the results were thrilling (Kelly Clarkson’s “Stuff Like That There” during big band week pretty much sealed the deal for her), and sometimes you got Sanjaya’s pony-hawk. But the unpredictability kept us coming back. The only challenge offered to the contestants this season was the “no ballads” rule during rock week, which three of them broke anyway. You had some talented kids this season; we would have loved to see how they performed even one inch outside of their comfort zones. There was no call for theatricality this season, so there was no theatricality this season.

There should perhaps be a written test.
This year’s top ten revealed, among other jaw-droppers, that they had never heard a Beatles song, or any version of U2’s “One,” or had even considered that “My Funny Valentine” was a song you’d sing to an ugly person. Can we reasonably expect these people to give us artistry? Out of the tens of thousands who audition, surely we can find ten people who can sing well and also have a passing familiarity with the recent history of music.

Understand how people watch television now.
It must have been clear before the first camera started rolling that Nicki and Mariah’s relationship would not be warm, so whoever decided to hire them both anyway was clearly hoping for a moment. But here’s the thing about a moment: If it happens at all, people will watch it on their computers the next morning or on TMZ/The View/The Soup in the days thereafter. They do not waste their time waiting to catch a moment live when it will be all over their Facebook wall soon enough. (Not as much time as you’re asking for, anyway.)

But on the other hand, understand how people watch television now.
Bad moments go viral, but so do very good ones. The few truly epic performances this season — all by Candice Glover, it must be said — were immediately splashed all over entertainment news sites and blogs, giving nonviewers a taste of the talent they were missing, encouraging them to develop rooting interest, and potentially driving viewership back to the show. (And again, this season’s epic moments were pretty subdued. If videos were as easily sharable in season eight as they are now, not only would Adam Lambert have won, it could have been the top-rated season by far.)

The slim reed of a chance that two millionaires might give each other the side-eye is not enough to make a viewer invest three hours a week. The emotional connection that comes from feeling like the first person to discover a new talent is. It is, in fact, what this show is built on.

Ignore what your research department is telling you about your core viewer.
In this recent story about your attempt to replace Mariah Carey with Jennifer Lopez mid-season (the rare entertainment news item that was both implausible and boring), this line had the sad ring of truth:

“The core viewer is a Midwestern, Southern, older woman who is threatened by Nicki’s aggressiveness,” says one knowledgeable source.

So … Idol’s core viewer is a racist? Idol’s core viewer wants minorities and women to know their place? Phooey. Your core viewer has no problem with aggressiveness; your brand was built on the aggressive cruelty of Simon Cowell. Don’t be afraid to cast a villain, and don’t let Grandma tell you which color and gender to choose. How many Cokes and Fords is she buying anyway?

Let the newcomers have the gimmicks.
I fear that next season, you’ll be intimidated into instituting judges’ teams and steals and battle-rounds, when all the key elements for your success are already there. Don’t New Coke us, Idol. Cut the fat, get back to your core mission, and go forth with confidence. You built this city on a cheap facsimile of rock and roll.

The power to get back home has been inside you all along.

More of us will have suggestions in the comments. Don’t ignore them.

Good call getting rid of Randy Jackson. Dude was the worst.

Us, out.

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