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Outwit, Outplay, Outlast

The Fifth Epoch of AI has arrived, and the theme isn't hard to figure out

A long time ago – well, "about six years ago", which is an eternity for reality TV – in a galaxy far, far away – er, that is, "on a different (and dearly missed) website" – our longtime friend and fellow Idolmetrics analyst Leo, The Idol Guy theorized that American Idol runs in organic three-year cycles, which he famously dubbed "epochs".  We at WNTS quickly adopted Leo's definition because, let's face it, it seemed absolutely spot-on at the time, and nothing whatsoever has happened in the intervening years to make us change our minds.

For newbies to the General Theory of Epochtivity: In the first season of a three-year epoch, AI sets out on a new path by making substantial changes to its formula.  Maybe the judges are new, or the format is tweaked, or new twists are added (such as allowing contestants to play instruments, introduced in Epoch 3 Year 1, a.k.a. Season Seven).  These epoch-launching seasons tend to be ragged, with plenty of growing pains and misfires along the way, but at the end it's usually considered more or less a success by the fans and producers.  In the second year, the contestants know what to expect and the format matures; Year Two of an epoch is almost invariably its high water mark.  In the third and final year, a cataclysmic natural disaster wipes out all life on earth except for cockroaches and maybe Ryan Seacrest.  Well, it seems that way anyhow.

Epoch One (Seasons One, Two, and Three) launched the franchise and laid out its framework.  Epoch Two (AI4, AI5, AI6) expanded the genre boundaries into harder-edged country and rock, and it teased viewers about the potential of dramatic rearrangements.  Those were perfected in Epoch Three (AI7, AI8, AI9) as a new generation of contestants recognized that the road to success required taking risks and showing off your musical chops.  The third epoch ended with the departure of Simon Cowell, leading to a Fourth Epoch (AI10, AI11, AI12) where the talent level was generally broader and deeper but the judges became nearly irrelevant (or, in the case of Season Twelve, irredeemable.)  You can read more about Epochology 101 in the editorial "A Tale of Epoch Proportions" and its 2012 addendum, which we'll be referring to later in this essay.

Which brings us to Season Thirteen and the dawn of the Fifth Epoch.  If the First Epoch was about Establishment, the Second was about Musical Diversity, the Third was about Artistry, and the Fourth was about Life After Simon, it's quickly become clear what the Fifth Epoch is all about.


Immunity Token

A fundamental principle of Epoch Theory is that, while every third season tends to crash and burn, a new and improved epoch arises from its ashes the following January.  It's something of a natural cycle of death and renewal.  Many of the best and most enduring changes to American Idol arose as a result of the producers repairing what went totally pear-shaped the previous epoch.  Instruments, for example, can be seen as a direct response to Sanjayamania, when critics savagely ripped the show for promoting looks and personality over musical ability.

Sometimes, a fix worked for a while, but eventually had to be re-fixed.  Case in point: the continuous, three-round, sex-separated semifinals that AI used during the Second and Third Epochs.  It was introduced to prevent a repeat of Season Three, when a slew of young, cute, and heavily-promoted contestants skated through their one-shot semifinal groups before voters had time to realize that many weren't ready for the big stage.  And, though tedious, the new wildcard-free format served reasonably well for a half-decade...until the fateful evening of March 11th, 2010, when it was demonstrated that when the format failed, it really, really, really failed.

On the surface, the challenge of the Fifth Epoch is to fix the problems of AI12, arguably among the least entertaining seasons that any hit television series has ever had.  More generally, new producers Per Blankens, Evan Prager, and Jesse Ignjatovic were tasked with turning around a franchise that had been slowly leaking viewership for six years before the 2013 nosedive.

The catch here is that, for the first time in its long run, there is no guarantee that there will be a Sixth Epoch.  Fox, it's whispered, is likely to green-light a Season Fourteen in 2015, not out of any faith in the new production staff but for two baser reasons.  One, sputtering as it is, American Idol is still the network's highest-rated series.  Two, Fox wants to remain a player in the Reality Talent Competition market, and having just canceled The X-Factor, AI remains its best and only bet.  So, it appears the show has won a one-year immunity.

Alas, it's also whispered that American Idol will not turn a profit in 2014, for the very first time.  The big contracts dished out to Ryan and the judges, particularly Jennifer Lopez, will be tough to recoup.  Plus the not-insignificant costs of all those auditions, Hollywood weeks, mentors, musicians, clearance rights, and what have you all add up.  Idol, we swear sometimes, must be the most advertisement-saturated TV show in history, but it's obvious that those ad revenues are tapering off.  If Blankens and Co. can't right the ship by this time next year, Fox and 19E might well decide it's time to pull the plug.  (On the bright side, at least we'd all be spared whatever horrors await us in Season Fifteen.)

So, the name of the game right now is Survivor: Los Angeles.  How are our tribespeople doing?

Tribal Council

As we write this, AI13 is a bit over halfway through its competitive episodes.  After a mediocre semifinals and a slow start to the finals (largely owing to some Particularly Horrific Song Choices), the season seems to be hitting its stride.  The most recent two shows rated out above 55, and the eight solo performances on Audition Songs Night scored 65.4, second-highest of all time.  Four contestants have average ratings of 60 or higher, and a fifth, Malaya Watson has already turned in six 4-star numbers; only a disastrous duet and one of those aforementioned PHSCs has kept Watson's overall rating stuck in the mid-50s.  Eight performances have reached 5-stars; that's more or less average for this stage of the competition.  The midcard contestants have done what midcarders are supposed to do: churn out mostly decent performances with an occasional 4-star gem mixed in.  No question it's been uneven and occasionally patience-trying at times, but it's a First Year Epoch season.  What did you expect?

As for the epoch-defining changes, while most have been very welcome, journalistic integrity compels us to admit that they've been something of a mixed bag so far.  There's newer and blessedly fresher music...but unfortunately that has often provided the rope for Idols to routinely hang themselves.  Rickey Minor (and Allison Irahita!) are back to spice up the band...but unfortunately, those bad sound mixes so familiar to longtime Idol fans seem to have snuck in the back door, too.  The judges have been, to coin a phrase, staggeringly outstanding all year, providing no-punches-pulled but constructive feedback rather than the usual amalgam of cluelessness/manipulation/melodrama/"dawg!"...but until recently, their advice didn't seem to be helping the contestants improve all that much.

The overhaul of the voting system seems to be working well, which comes as no surprise.  The previous, perpetually broken, unlimited-vote system was the Cone Of Silence of modern American television – fans of the classic 1960s sitcom Get Smart will understand the analogy.  The show has made it easy for casual viewers to cast their votes, while making it exceptionally difficult for any handful of power voters to skew the results.  The fact that Sam Woolf has three Bottom Three appearances in the past four weeks is the clearest indication of this: he's young, he's cute, he makes every female tween in the studio audience squeal, and he's actually quite talented...but, the perception around the Idolsphere is that he has underachieved thus far.  In previous years, a heartthrob with a competent voice like Woolf would have been a lock for the Final Five.  This year, even with this week's Judges' Save, our guess is that if he doesn't produce a 5-star performance pronto, he'll be back home in Florida by the end of the month.

All of these changes were designed to stem the bleeding from Season Twelve and to restore faith in the franchise among its loyal but fed-up fans.  There really was little chance to stop the Nielsen ratings slide in 2014; the producers were up against a very powerful current and couldn't be expected to swim clear of it in three months' time.

The real test will come next January.  Can American Idol retain the audience it carries out of Season Thirteen?  And, will the producers have the courage (and permission) to touch the one aspect of the series that has been off-limits thus far but, now that the voting system has been made reasonably sane, is the most in need of attention: the past-their-prime audition and Hollywood segments?  Fox deemed those untouchable this year, but AI is in survival mode now.  Nothing should be off the table.

In the addendum of that earlier editorial, we laid out what we considered the defining aspects of the first four epochs.  One is the "Foreshadowing Moment", which is the performance in the prior epoch's final year that history suggests was ahead of its time, and which hinted at what the next three years would bring.  For Epoch Four, we had listed this as "Still waiting...."

We're confident now that we can fill in that blank. The performance of Season Twelve that we think will go down as the Fifth Epoch's harbinger is Sky Blue Diamond, by Charlie Askew in his Tour Sing-Off against Aubrey Cleland.  Askew was a complex young man who showed both a fierce independent streak and, unfortunately, some evident emotional issues during his brief run.  For what he knew up front would be his last performance on the Idol stage, he went with a song he felt was perfectly suited for him.  And he ought to know, because he wrote it.  The WNTS approval ratings suggest he was correct: he scored considerably higher on "Diamond" than he did on his other two performances combined.

Later that season, Angie Miller, who'd done a very well-received original song of her own in Hollywood, covered a work by Season Eleven's Colton Dixon to a 74 rating.  So far in Season Thirteen, we've heard four contestants perform four original songs in competition.  Three have reached 5-stars; they comprise 30% of the season leaderboard here in early April.  (And, oh yeah, the fourth is on the leaderboard too...just not in the column that Spencer Lloyd was aiming for.)

It's way too early for anyone to bank on, or even to suggest, that original songs can save American Idol.  It's especially unclear that there is a sustainable market for what naysayers are bound to dub Coffeehouse Idol.  It does, however, seem likely that we'll hear more original compositions and indie artists in the Fifth Epoch, along with contestants who use their guitar or piano as more than just a prop.  (Most AI fans know that Jason Castro was the first to play a guitar on a competition night, but we're wondering: is Alex Preston the first to use a capo regularly?)

Incidentally, we're far from the first to notice how the new epoch is shaping up.  On Facebook, regular WNTS correspondent Ben suggested that Epoch Five would be "a transition away from the Big Label Contract Starmaker image, which is no longer viable, and into a more artist-showcase / songwriter-based format that can be done more intimately and cheaply in the face of declining ratings."  Perhaps that's the best and most succinct take on this of all.  Season Fourteen is the key; that's when we'll all learn whether or not this epoch will deliver what it takes for the series to survive.  For now, we are hoping merely that the last couple weeks' promise of a strong finish to Season Thirteen will become reality.  The tribe has spoken.

- The WNTS.com Team

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