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A Song of Ice and Fire(d)

In defense, however weak, of Per Blankens and his changes to American Idol

In our preseason introduction to AI14, written in the depths of a bitterly cold winter and with spring just a promise, our Editorial Board held out hope that perhaps the "Crazy Eddie" cycle of madness on American Idol could be defeated.  For thirteen years, we'd watched season after season play out in three-act epochs:  Transform — Peak — Fail.  With the series in a condition where another "Fail" season meant near-certain cancellation, our wish was that executive producer Per Blankens and his team could make the necessary adjustments to make AI's trajectory less parabolic, as it were.

Fast-forward your DVR to April.  Here in the Northeastern U.S., sunshine and warmth have finally arrived.  So, it seems, has our wish of an epoch-busting incarnation of Idol...except, uh, maybe we should've been more specific.  See, we were hoping that next year would be the breakout season, swapping out 'Fail' for something more palatable.  We're nowhere near believing that Season 14 has brought the Fail a year early.  But, if this is a Peak year, we're more than a little concerned as to what the upcoming valley is going to look like.  (Insert wholly trite and predictable snarky allusion to the Grand Canyon here.)

We know we're not alone in feeling this way.  We're forever trolling the Idolsphere for reviews to include in our weekly approval ratings (and they are getting harder and harder to come by), plus we read the exasperated comments of several dozen Review Crew balloters each week.  Though it's by no means unanimous, blame for what is turning into an okay but well-below-expectations season seems to be aimed squarely at Per Blankens, with occasional solar flares of scorn hitting the judging panel, new mentor Scott Borchetta, and the contestants themselves at various plasma levels.

Let us say up front that we are not here to praise Mr. Blankens.  We'll have more to say in our season-ending editorial in May, but at the moment we're inclined to agree with the Idolsphere's sentiment that, if there's a Season Fifteen, perhaps someone else ought to be running it.  But, neither are we here to bury him.  Blankens stepped into a very difficult situation two summers ago.  It's only fair for every American Idol fan to acknowledge the challenges he faced and the aggressive and proactive...if not terribly successful, unfortunately...ways he tried to address them.

"Chaos Is A Ladder"

Before proceeding, let's try to put the first three months of Season 14 in perspective, in terms of (a) all 13 prior American Idol seasons and (b) only the four previous Epoch Year Two seasons.

With four competition episodes remaining in 2015, the season average stands at a dreary 48.9.  This isn't good.  Yet, it's not terribly out of line with where other seasons stood with a month left in the schedule.  Owing to the nature of the competition, which typically begins chaotically before the field is pruned of weaker contestants, it takes time for most seasons to climb out of the 40's.  The table at right shows, for each of the first 13 seasons, in what episode did its season average rise above 50 and remain there.  You might find a few surprises in the list.

Over 50 For Good
Season  # Episode
AI1 n/a
AI2 Final 3
AI3 n/a
AI4 Final 3
AI5 Final 3
AI6 n/a
AI7 Finale
AI8 Final 7(ii)
AI9 n/a
AI10 Top 24
AI11 Final 13
AI12 Final 4(i)
AI13 Final 7
AI14 ?

Four seasons never got above 50 at all.  Of the other nine, three didn't break par until just three contestants remained.  Largely this was due to extraordinarily weak semifinal and undercard contestants in the early years of the series.  As we've written before, and as we'll assert until our website's dying HTTP transaction, we believe that hugely undeserving contestants were deliberately cast into the live shows for the sole purpose of providing red meat for Simon Cowell.  We think this practice continued unabated until one particular piece of cannon fodder lasted far longer than the producers anticipated, threatening to make a mockery of the show's credibility.  It more or less ceased after Season Six, which is why the ever-present catchphrase for AI7 was "The Most Talented Top 24 ever™."  (Translation: "Okay, we've learned our lesson.")

Thus, let's pick up the analysis in the Third Epoch.  Season Seven first broke 50 on Dolly Parton Night, but it wouldn't last.  Jason Castro and Brooke White famously hit the wall shortly thereafter, and the season rating sunk back underwater until David Cook and David Archuleta performed a last-minute rescue operation in the Finale.  AI8 bobbed above and below 50 several times before its nominal Disco theme pushed it over to stay.  Season Nine, alas, went off the rails one fateful Thursday night and never recovered.

We've long felt that Season Ten was a bit overrated by the Idolsphere (and that only two of its 13 contestants seemed generally underrated to us -- love-him-or-hate-him Paul McDonald, and, with dripping irony, this guy.)  But, looking more closely at the numbers, the Fourth Epoch's kickoff year's rating of 53.8 is quite easily explained.  The semifinals were historically strong, the elimination order (with, ahem, one notable exception) was sensible, only six performances all year wound up in 1-star trainwreck territory, and Haley Reinhart went on a late-season tear that largely maintained the Cast Rating while her competitors were petering out.  At any rate, AI10 became the first season never to have visited the wrong side of par.  Season Eleven's semifinals didn't quite meet the standard of its predecessor's, but it sailed over 50 on the first night of the Finals and never looked back.  As for Season 12:  once a complete, ah, chromosomectomy had been performed on the field, the remaining ladies had no difficulty whatsoever keeping their season rating afloat.

It seems fairly clear now that the defining feature of Epoch Five is the Per Blankens Era.  Season Thirteen briefly got its nose above 50 in the first Final Eight show but fell back the next week.  Then came Blankens' brainstorm of having the Idols choose songs for one another.  Though Mr. B. steadfastly denied it in interviews, most of the Idolsphere, including us, felt that the objective was to generate some kneecapping and backbiting amongst the cast.  Fail.  The Final 7 show turned out to be one of the strongest episodes of the season, and it kept AI13 above the midline for good.

Note the five bolded rows in the table, signifying Epoch Year Two seasons.  Though Season Two is looked back upon fondly by Idol old-timers, the fact is that its ratings were stuck in the doldrums until the very end.  Not unlike AI13, that season was grotesequely top-heavy, and viewers had to sit through some truly dreadful performances before its superb Final Three was reached.  (Whenever you're feeling down about the state of Idol Nation, it's never a bad idea to visit YouTube to check out some performance videos from the old days, particularly in the first halves of the first six seasons.  Appalling moments are readily found.)  Much the same can be said about sainted Season Five, which quite a few Idol fans cite as their favorite because of the strength of the endgame.  That's true, but there were some howlers along the way that its backers deftly overlook, not the least of which was this complete trainwreck of an evening.

Another year that would be in the running for Best Season Ever to the casual (and not-so-casual) American Idol viewer is Season Eight.  Granted, that year produced what we'd unabashedly say were three of our ten favorite AI finalsits ever...but the falloff in watchability from #3 to #5 is terrifying.  (The underappreciated Alexis Grace at #4 provides a hospitable way-station during your plummet.)  Plus, your humble WNTS staff still wakes up screaming many nights over the kangaroo court semifinals.  As we've often quipped, the tour that year should have consisted of four finalists and six semifinalists.  Like AI2 and AI5, the season was salvaged only at the very end by a strong final month of headliners.

As for AI11, we've given up trying to explain it.  It worked.  From beginning to end, despite no standout performer and quite a few hiccups along the way, everything clicked.  Even at 54.5, it's arguably underrated, and it would be bumping up against 56 if not for some atrocious duets.  It's an outlier.  Next.

In short, what we hoped this little study showed is the following: in three of Idol's four previous Year Two circuits, their relative strength (and their viewers' positive perceptions) can be traced almost entirely to a strong final month.  The endgame is what matters.  "Leave 'em laughing as you go," famously wrote Joni Mitchell 50 years ago (and if you are wondering why there is no artist hyperlink around Mitchell's name, it's because nobody has ever covered one of her songs on American Idol.  Ever.  But I Don't Want To Miss A Thing has been sung eight times alone.  Go ahead, weep.  It's a natural reaction.)

So in that regard, even as the calendar approaches May, it's still too early to write off Season Fourteen.  Yes, really.  There are still four shows to go.  By our count, there are at least 40 more performances* to come by a sextet with a Cast Rating of 59.  If they can produce four shows of that caliber, AI14 will post a season rating right around 52 and will probably be remembered reasonably fondly.  If they only average 55 from here on out, AI14 will end with a season rating of 50.6.  If they average 53, as they did this past week, the season rating will be below 50, and things wont be pretty.  We won't lie and say we're optimistic, or even all that hopeful.  But, the four previous Year Two seasons were permitted to play out until the very end, and AI14 deserves the same patience.

(* Which reminds us.  There are four weeks until the Finale, which has been scheduled for months for May 12th and 13th.  Presumably, the night of the 12th will feature just two singers as is traditional, because a three-person Finale with a Twitter save between two at the end of night would be ludicrous, not that ludicrousness can be ruled out with the current production staff.  So, at some point in the next three weeks, the producers are going to have to send two people home at once.  Isn't it way, way too late, not to mention wholly against the spirit of the show, to prune the field that abruptly during the endgame of a season?  Are we missing something here, or is this yet another example of AI producers not being able to read a calendar while counting backwards from 12?)

Game Of Drones

Which brings us back to Per Blankens.  Fox and 19E handed him a franchise that was once on top of the world but had since hit the skids.  To make matters worse, it was coming off what we termed at the time, "possibly the least enjoyable season in the history of reality TV."  And, compared to other AI fan sites, we were being kind.  His corporate handlers tasked him with keeping American Idol successful and profitable until the end of recorded time.  No pressure.

Although there is considerable doubt he coined the phrase, or even uttered it, Albert Einstein is credited with the dictum, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  To Blankens' immense credit, he understood this fully.  He came up with several innovations designed to improve the series, from both a competitive and a spectator standpoint.

We won't belabor the point with a fine-toothed comb, to mix two metaphors that, with good reason, had never before been used in the same sentence.  Suffice it to say that some of these innovations worked, and some didn't.  Blankens brought American Idol into the world of social media a mere decade after the rest of the entertainment industry had set up shop there.  (Honestly, that is one huge Fail that has to be laid at Nigel Lythgoe's feet: "So you think you can't tweet?")  Blankens decided the live shows needed an injection of intrigue and suspense to provide tension, although the only real suspense his team could come up with was, "Will he or won't he be chosen to sing tonight?"  He utilized rapid-cut camera angles to make even simple performances feel like a music video.  He recognized that, if nothing else, the judging panel comprised some world-class eye candy, so reaction shots were spliced in liberally.  Flashing lights, wind machines, string ensembles, dry ice out the wazoo, HD (ADHD?) background images: Blankens's choreographers became James Durbin writ large, whether the song called for special effects or not.  Online (and, blessedly, limited) voting was introduced.  Light-up chairs, split-screen introductions, rental swaybots.  Scaled-back time slots were not an obstacle: whereas Idol had only once previously tried to squeeze ten performances into an hour with disastrous results, Blankens's team staged twelve with time to spare.  There were Twitter saves and judges saves and even an abortive 'group save' offer that backfired spectacularly on live TV, plus much, much more we could list...but this paragraph is way too long as it is.

Now, as you peruse that list, chances are you, like us, will find a few things you like and many more that you hate.  Really, really hate.  As in, you hate them so much you really don't want to find out what Per has up his sleeve for Season Fifteen.  We sympathize, and as we wrote earlier, we tend to agree.  On balance, the Epoch Five innovations have been for the worse...but overall, maybe not by all that much.  And, at least Einstein's Observation was respected.  It would have been very easy for P.B. to be a drone and stay the course that the previous production crew had charted.  If he had, perhaps Idol would be in slightly better shape today...but even if it were, it would be very, very slightly.

In short, Blankens's sins were ones of commission, not ones of omission.  Aim for the moon, the greeting-card poets say, because even if you miss you'll find yourself among the stars.  Well, yes, there have certainly been times the past two years that we've been so aggravated with the producers that we'd have gladly sent them a one-way trip into outer space.  But, always with the utmost respect.  Because at least they tried.

"Winter Is Coming"

If you're a fan of Season Eleven, you'll probably enjoy our planned season recap in a few weeks.  Outlier or not, and despite the fact that it did nothing at the time to slow the slippage in Nielsen ratings, we believe that a close study of that weirdly entertaining year provides vital guidelines for keeping hard-core American Idol fans happy, and thus to keep the show on the air.  In the meantime, and to serve as a teaser, we'll leave you with this mild downer of an anecdote.

At least once a week, someone new emails or IMs us to ask what are the chances that Fancy will round up to 90 during end-of-the-season normalization.  Answer:  After every episode, the probability creeps a little higher -- right now, taking trending into account, it appears that it'll make 89.  But, 90 remains a less-than-even-money bet.  Mind you, a few more weeks like this last one, where the standard deviations are historically high and almost every performance gets packed in a narrow 30-to-70 range, and 90 might yet become odds-on.

Still, what's telling about the question isn't the eventual answer, which we'll all learn in about a month.  It's the fact that so many WNTS correspondents are asking it in the first place.  Perhaps we are projecting our own biases, but it suggests to us that quite a few Idolphiles don't believe the remaining cast is capable of producing a 90+ rating on their own.  "Fancy" stands as AI14's best chance to avoid becoming the first season in American Idol history without a single 'moment' performance.  Only Season Six produced as few as one (though we must give it proper credit:  if a season is going to reach the nineties only once, AI6 certainly did it in style.  If our staff were to point to any of the 37 performances to date that scored 90 or above and scream "That's still underrated!", that one would be it.)

There's a degree of irony that the singer of "Fancy" tried to duplicate Melinda Doolittle's signature performance this week, falling over 50 points short and getting sent home in the process.  But, that's secondary to the feelings of resignation that American Idol's longtime fans are displaying today.  Perhaps it's a lack of faith in the contestants' talent, their song selections, Borchetta's mentoring abilities, the producers' gimmickiness, or the pall that descends after many episodes because they conclude with a contestant being dismissed...mix and match your selections as you please.

One thing seems inarguable, however: Idol viewers were generally in better moods -- much, much better moods -- at the end of Season Eleven than in any season since.  If the franchise has a future, it begins there.

- The WNTS.com Team

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