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Comme ci, comme ša...
Season Thirteen had its ups, its downs, and one huge group of unsung heroes
26 May 2014
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So goes arguably the most famous opening sentence among literary novels: that of Dickens's classic A Tale Of Two Cities. It is something between a stretch and a travesty, of course, to borrow that magnificent line for use as the theme of a season recap of American Idol. But hey: Charles is dead, the copyright has expired, we have no shame, and you already knew all of that. So, let's run with it.
What got better in Season Thirteen compared to Season Twelve? The judges, by a lot, though any four potted plants from Home Depot could've managed some improvement. The freshness of the music, which actually bordered on contemporary for once. The guys' half of the draw (but see the earlier wisecrack about "plants, potted.") The voting system. Original songs(!). A few other things.
What got worse? The TV ratings. The filler on competition nights. The girls' half of the draw, though perhaps by not as much as you think. The universally-panned Rush Week format. The sound mixes, somehow. The young singers' consistency from week to week. The endless reaction shots of the judges during performances, which reached a Monty Python-esque level of absurdity by the month of May. Did we mention the TV ratings? A few other things.
In short, as the French would say: comme ci, comme ça – a little of this, a little of that. The best of times, the worst of times, and some mediocre times thrown in for good measure. A typically uneven First Year of an Epoch season, as new judges, new producers, and new contestants all coped with the triennial changes. Mistakes were made. No doubt it could have been better.
But it could have worse, too. Much worse. We'll explain why, shortly.
Obviously, if the only measure of success for Season Thirteen was, "Did it stink as badly as S12?", then new producer Per Blankens and friends can break out the "Mission Accomplished" banner. They slowed the bleeding, at least as far as most loyal viewers are concerned. That, however, should be more a cause for relief than for celebration. The franchise is still losing viewers. (In fairness, every television series here in the DVR / internet streaming / VOD era is losing viewers, though singing competitions like Idol and The Voice are losing them faster than are other genres.) All the new producers truly accomplished in 2014 is to earn themselves one more season to change that.
The judges were outstanding, at least at the outset. As Editor Brian observes, in Harry Connick, Jr., AI finally found a judge who could deliver tough, blunt, no-nonsense critiques without coming off as either a prima donna or an ass. Keith Urban seemed far looser (and lucid) than he did in his rookie year. And, Jennifer Lopez, whose performance during the live shows in her previous stint was anything but impressive, surprised everyone by being more of a teacher and less of a cheerleader. (In J-Lo's case, we weren't quite a shocked as everyone else – the woman does have the reputation of being one of the most demanding perfectionists in show business. She no doubt took the harsh criticism from S10 and S11 very seriously, and she returned in S13 to show she'd done her homework.)
Unfortunately, for producers and judges alike, their performance slipped as the season wore on. For Connick and Urban in particular, their friendly banter and playfulness turned into unrestrained cheesiness. Granted that this is American Idol, where cheese is the official snack food, but it can be (and was) taken way too far. By May, Connick seemed to lose his appetite for criticism, Urban slipped back into banality mode, and J-Lo was getting "goosies" so often that she ought to consider seeing a dermatologist. We know they're better than that, because we watched them be better than that for three months. We hope that they won't knock off a month early again in Season Fourteen.
As for the production team...well, for starters, we'll pretend the whole Group-Save Voting fiasco in the Top Five never happened. (But, gentlemen: never again. Never. Again.) Ditto for Rush Week, with one additional point of emphasis: if you are effectively going to cut one-third of the field before they have a chance to sing live, then you had better have chosen the remaining two-thirds with laser precision. Otherwise, viewers are going to wonder "what-if..." for three solid months.
One area where wholesale improvement is needed is in the pacing of the live shows, which was rather awful this season. As longtime Idol fans, we're used to too much talking, too many commercials, and too little music. We can't do much about the commercials except to use the time to check the Phillies score – Fox and 19E do have to pay the bills. The talking parts, however, were too long, too pointless, and too random, even by American Idol standards. The days when viewers would stay glued to AI because it was the hottest thing on television and nobody wanted to miss a minute...well, they've been over for years.
The best way to keep viewers tuned in, and to keep the Nielsen ratings from plumbing new depths, is to give them no excuse to change channels. Brief intro package, performance, brief critiques, very quick reaction interview from Ryan, repeat. No more celebrity walk-ons, either. If Ariana Grande (who Editor Nick didn't even knew existed until her cameo a few weeks ago) wants some national exposure, swell. Instead of simply bringing out the microphone for a contestant, have her use it to sing a song. Yes, even in the middle of a competition night – it has to be better than yet another reprise or duet. (Just please have enough sense to go to commercial afterwards; don't have an amateur Idol singer try to follow a pro.) The best variety shows of yesteryear operated at a frenetic pace; the entire point was that if a viewer didn't care for a particular segment, he or she knew to sit tight – it would be over soon and something new would quickly follow.
All of this will become truly crucial in 2015 when Fox cuts back American Idol's airtime from 50 hours to 37. This has caused some consternation across the Idolsphere, but not much in the WNTS offices. We figure it will force the producers to be leaner, meaner, and less reliant on non-meat filler every competition night. Sometimes the only way to get a plant to grow stronger and healthier is to prune it.
Oliver Twist (And Shout)
The music of Idol wasn't necessarily better in Season Thirteen than in the past, but it was certainly newer and fresher. At 15.4 years, it absolutely obliterated the previous record for average song age (23.2, set in AI2.) The freshness factor was 61% (a 16-point improvement from S12) and the repeat factor was 0.68; both were levels that haven't been seen since the second Bush administration. Though some of his other extemporaneous comments didn't work out quite as well, it gladdened our hearts that Caleb Johnson went ballistic at being assigned the eighth rendition of I Don't Want To Miss A Thing. The show has been on the air so long, and the Idolsphere has made its wishes so plainly known, that even the contestants want no part of the shopworn Idol catalogue.
Alas, we would be remiss if we failed to point out a paradox. As a result of so many years of so many Motown Nights, Beatles Nights, Elvis Nights, and Whatever Else Nigel Lythgoe Had On His iPod Nights, younger viewers have largely bailed on the show, leaving the average viewer's age right around 50 these days. Much of the newer music sailed right over the audience's heads, and there were some understandable gripes about that. We still believe that contemporary music is crucial for American Idol to remain relevant, but a small rebalancing wouldn't kill anyone. As always, the focus should be on songs that are fresh to the show (and to popular Reality TV singing shows in general), with newness an important but secondary factor.
As for original songs...there were four this year. Three achieved 5-star ratings. (Our favorite performance of the season, in fact, was Jessica Meuse's Blue-Eyed Lie, which even at 89 is woefully underrated.) More, please.
After thirteen years of fruitless waiting, many audiophiles are despairing at ever hearing the band and the vocals mixed properly on their TV sets, particularly on the first two songs of the night. Maybe the fourteenth time will be the charm? We wish. Similarly, whoever is in charge of the stage background animations needs to switch to decaf. Most performances need no backdrop at all; a few can use some pretty colors for effect. None, to our knowledge, needs a first-person view of a moving subway car. Cease and desist, we beg you.
We saved this for last, but it's definitely not least. Nobody outside of the production staff gives a flying fig about Jennifer Lopez's reaction to a performance. Not even J-Lo or her immediate family. Once again: cease and desist. Similarly, nobody in TV Land cares what the swaybots are doing either, unless it involves tear gas. Use a small picture-in-picture box if you must show this nonsense, but keep the focus during a performance on the contestant. Someone in Fox's upper chambers needs to instruct Mr. Blankens and crew that violation of this policy will be a firing offense in 2015.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Earlier we mentioned that, for all its ups and downs, Season Thirteen could have been much worse were it not for some unsung heroes. Let us explain.
We'll begin by introducing three new statistics for your consideration. For this entire analysis, we're going to consider Finals episodes only, and as usual we will omit performances comprising the unholy trinity of reprises, duets/trios, and those ever-cuddly Original Winners' Songs™. When we compute a season's approval rating, we do so by averaging all of the performances in that season. We categorically do not average the contestants' ratings individually, because some contestants (one hopes the best ones) sing many, many more times than others. But, what if we did?
Let's call the average approval rating of all finalists in a season, weighted equally and irrespective of the number of performances each gave, the Cast Perception Rating. Reason: when a casual viewer tunes in to Idol early in the finals to see if there are enough singers worth watching that year, they probably don't weigh the good singers more heavily than the bad ones. They look at the field as a unit. This, we think, is why Idolphiles often have a very different perception of a season than America as a whole: as the former are in it for the long haul, they see good contestants perform more often than not-so-good ones, and their freshest memories of a year are the episodes of the endgame. Season Eight is the gold standard here; it was ripped unmercifully by casual viewers, yet it's remembered fondly by many AI fans because when the dust finally settled, the Final Four were very good and the three highest-rated contestants were spectacular. Do you recall how many performances by the likes of Megan Joy and Michael Sarver you had to sit through to reach that point? You don't? Neither do we. Idol fans have very selective memories.
Here's a trivia question: In American Idol's thirteen competitive Finals, how many do you suppose have a Cast Perception Rating above 50? Lock in your answers now. What's that? You already peeked at the table to the right, so you know it's a trick question, and you can't believe your eyes? Yeah, that was our reaction too. Zero. There has never been a season in which the average rating of its finalists during the finals has made it out of the 40s. The closest any has come was Season Eleven, which with each passing year looks more and more like an outlier. At 49.91, it just missed; imagine what that year would have been like had, say, Jennifer Hirsh or Aaron Marcellus taken Heejun Han's spot.
This little curiosity may explain why non-regular watchers of Idol tend to have a far lower opinion of the field than do the regulars. There is an anti-Lake Wobegone effect at play: at any given point early on, every year is below average. It takes time to weed out the roster; by that point, the fickle viewer is off watching whatever is that year's equivalent of Duck Dynasty.
Note that Season Thirteen actually rates fairly high on the CPR list. This shouldn't be a surprise: in the three seasons where Jennifer Lopez has been a judge, the casting has been professional. (We've often suspected that a great many contestants in the Simon Cowell years were put through solely for use as target practice.) The problem with AI13, of course, was that the field was unnaturally top-heavy: the gap between the fourth- and fifth-highest rated contestants was nearly nine full points, a staggering amount.
And, therein lay the problem. As long as the foursome of Johnson, Meuse, Jena Irene, and Alex Preston remained in the competition, Season Thirteen could hold its own against prior seasons of American Idol, at least among regular viewers. Should any one of them have gone home prematurely, it would have been a major blow. Two early dismissals and the whole house of cards would have come tumbling down. It was, in essence, all up to the voters and the new voting system. The unbalanced talent level meant that AI13 could not afford a single slip-up.
Which brings us to our second new statistic: Best-Case Rating. A BCR is a little bit complicated. Given the actual set of finalists in a season (whether they are the best set of finalists is irrelevant), ideally the one with the lowest average rating during the finals would go home the first week after giving only one performance, the second-lowest would go home the next week after two performances, and so on. In that way, the season will end up with the highest possible Finals rating it could muster. Hence, the BCR.
One important point. For a season to reach its BCR, obviously the voters have to do their part by sending the weakest link home every week. Less obviously, however, is that the surviving finalists have to hold up their end of the bargain by maintaining their performance level. It doesn't help if a contestant starts off strongly and then tumbles off the face of the earth, as happened to AI7's Brooke White and Jason Castro, two of the gentler souls ever to grace the Idol stage. The grind of the long season wore both down brutally; in hindsight, it would have been better if each had gone home several weeks earlier than they did. But, who knew?
And that leads us to new stat #3: Voter Efficiency. Clearly there is an optimal elimination order for each season's finals, even if it only becomes known retroactively. That order will lead to the BCR being achieved. The actual elimination order, however, being invariably sub-optimal, will lead to a lesser total, generally in the neighborhood of 95%. The quotient of actual to the optimal is Voter Efficiency, which you'll find in the table to the left.
Take a bow, Season Thirteen voters. You were its unsung heroes. You produced the second-highest VE percentage in American Idol history. In fact, two of the top three came in the last two seasons, and that's a relief, because neither one could afford any slip-ups. (Yes, it's true that Lazaro Arbos survived much longer than he should have in S12, but it wasn't as though he was knocking out a string of Melinda Doolittles or anything. Plus, he was gone before the majority of the multi-song phase of the competition took place, where mistakes in the Voter Efficiency percentage get seriously magnified.)
To put this in sharper perspective: had fourth-place finisher Meuse instead gone out in tenth place, the actual Finals rating would have dropped from 54.64 to 53.06, and the VE would have plummeted to 94.84%.
In short, while neither of the last two years were anything to tweet home about, both survived from a WNTS rating standpoint because the voters were up to the task. For Season Fourteen and beyond, the producers have a choice. One, make every effort to produce a finals cast with a BCR that can survive a brain cramp or two by America. Two, keep your fingers crossed and hope your luck with the viewers doesn't run out.
At some point, we'll write the code to put all three of these new stats online in the Seasons section. But, it will have to wait for another day. Right now our priority is getting our illustrious hosting provider to keep the site from crashing every time the load spikes. Plus, there's Camp Should-A-Been to snarkitect, so to speak, along with general decompression after another season of watching this nutty show.
No, Season Thirteen wasn't great, but it wasn't awful either. There was no standout performer (Johnson and Irene tied for the highest contestant rating at 63.0; that's the lowest 'high' ever.) There were, however, four very good ones, and not every season can boast that. The episodes were maddeningly inconsistent, the judges and producers had their ups and downs, and the telecasts themselves need lots of tightening up. Lots.
Yet, it was an oddly compelling year. Not a success, not a failure, but interesting. AI14 will be a Second Year Epoch season, so we can all cautiously hope for better days ahead. And, compared to the Bleak House we were in this time last May, that's not so bad at all. Have a great summer, everyone.
- The WNTS.com Team