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Train(wrecks) Kept A-Rollin'...

American Idol is trending up while WNTS ratings are trending...down?

The accountants at ABC cannot be terribly disappointed about their return on investment for the American Idol reboot.  Its year-over-year TV ratings have held more or less steady in 2019, in an era in which broadcast viewership has otherwise been plummeting.  In fact, last Sunday's Queen/Movie Duets Night was the highest-rated episode of Season 17 thus far, surpassing even the March premiere.  According to the folks at Nielsen, it finished second in the 18-49 demographic (known as the "demo" to industry insiders, but you already knew that) and fourth overall for the week of April 22-28.  Pretty impressive for a once-cancelled dinosaur, no?

Not that Idol was struggling before Adam Lambert and friends came along, either.  The week before, Disney Night finished tied for third in the demo and eighth overall.  This marks the second straight year that viewership has taken a sharp upturn when the laborious Audition and Hollywood weeks finally ran their course.  We are cautiously ecstatic that, perhaps, someone at ABC knows how to read a trend line, and that he or she mentions to a network executive: "Hey boss, American Idol really seems to draw in lots more viewers when we stop the edited silliness and air real musical performances.  Think maybe we ought to start doing that sooner next year?"

And, oh yes: Idol has actually surpassed The Voice in TV ratings for the first time since the Pleistocene Era.  Dinosaurs rock!

Meanwhile, MJ just dropped a feature on a Billboard report that AI is the number-one social media prime-time program in America.  Not just this week, either.  All freaking season.  The show that a decade ago basically bounced Ricky Braddy and his 69 approval rating on his keister in the semifinals because he maintained a website of his music (and, ahem, because they had essentially pre-scripted a Final 2 that season, even if it didn't quite come about, but we digress) is now the toast of the Twitterverse.

No one has fared more successfully in this department than soft-spoken, and soft-singing, Alejandro Aranda.  The talented multi-instrumentalist from Pomona, whose audition was promoted by the producers as "the best in Idol history" (it wasn't, but it was still really good), has gone from 4,000 Instagram followers before AI17 premiered, to a stunning 560,000 today.  Laine Hardy is second with 381K followers.  Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, who had the smallest web fanbase to start, has jumped from under a thousand to 136K.  With so many trending personalities in the fold, Idol even took time out of their regular performance schedule to air a two-hour special to provide a behind-the-scenes, up-close-and-personal look at the Final 8.  It too finished in the Nielsen Top 10 that week.

Although no formal announcement by ABC has been made, it's a certainty that there will be a Season 18 in 2020.  Audition calls have already been put out.  We'd never go so far as to say that American Idol is "relevant" again – quite honestly, today's fractured, fractious, highly-bubbled US society might be termed "post-relevance".  But, the second season of Epoch Six has been about as modestly successful as an AI fan could reasonably hope.

All this begs the question:  For a season that by many measures has been going swimmingly, how come the WhatNotToSing.com approval ratings this year have been in the toilet?

We've heard from a lot of people lately on this topic.  Some are longtime correspondents, some have materialized out of the ether.  Some look at it analytically; others look at it emotionally.  A small handful have been downright angry about it, including one email writer who suggested we revise this season's ratings upwards to bring them in line with Idol's social media buzz, lest we ourselves be deemed "irrelevant".  That person is still waiting for our reply, which we may or may not get around to when we finish laughing.

Our editorial staff will concede that the WNTS ratings feel a bit low this year, at least compared to our general enjoyment of the competition thus far.  At 47.7, it currently sits dead last among Idol's 17 seasons.  In fairness, most seasons tend to start out low and only go over 50 relatively late in the Finals, after the weaker contestants have blessedly been eliminated and the field is theoretically at its strongest.  AI15 was in even worse shape with three episodes to go; it sat at 47.2 and we warned our readers that its chances of reaching 50 were slim and none.  Slim won that year: it dropped a 61, a 57 and a record-shattering 65.7 Finale in its last three weeks to finish at 50.5.

It's not impossible that Season 17 will follow that route.  But, we strongly doubt it.  Going into its third-to-last show, the five remaining AI15 contestants had a Cast Rating of 60.9.  The Final Six of AI17 are at, um, 52.9.  The four highest-rated Seventeers all average four stars or barely below, led by Harmon who is flirting with being just the second contestant in Idol history to average 80 or better.

The concern, frankly, are the two trailers.  Aranda debuted with a 73 and hasn't broken 50 since.  Wade Cota has fared even worse among web reviewers: a 56, then four straight two-star outings, and capped by a disastrous 13 this week when he somehow forgot the words to arguably the most popular rock anthem in existence.  (For the record: Hardy and Laci Kaye Booth also suffered a lyrics flub during their duet, but they covered it well and only a few people seem to have noticed.  Somewhere in the viewing audience, a former champion was smiling.)

Aranda's situation is the most discordant: over a half-million social media followers plus buzz galore, alongside a 36.4 average approval rating?  This really ought to be impossible.  But as we look at his six performances to date, it's hard to say which of his lowest five were legitimately underscored.

  • One Dance from the initial staging looked like it might be an EDM arrangement – something Idol ought to encourage more of, considering its popularity among Millennials – but it segued into a unremarkable delivery and a 28 rating.
  • His original piano ballad Cholo Love scored a respectable 43, but with a 27 s.d.
  • The Coldplay-esque cover of Remember Me perhaps deserved more than 31, but not a whole lot.  Michelle Sussett's stunning, 69-rated, turnaround performance from last season was still fresh in reviewers' minds, and we wouldn't dream of suggesting that Aranda's sleepier arrangement was even close.
  • And, if we are being frank, we're not sure how his barely audible duet with Walker Burroughs this week even garned 18 rating points.  Were it supported by our database, we'd have scored it "WTF?" and left it at that.
  • The one performance of Aranda's we think deserved a significantly higher rating was, ironically, his lowest to date: Under Pressure.  That was a brilliant arrangement, in our opinion.  We've seen no shortage of Idols over the years turn a pretty song into an angsty, dramatic arrangement and score very well.  Aranda flipped the script: he turned a famous angsty song into a pretty, introspective ballad.  And his vocals?  Um, okay, you've got us there.  It's hard to say what the right score is for a highly divergent performance like that, but if web reviewers chose to go with the time-tested mantra "It's a singing competition, stupid!", we'll accept it.  Perhaps all it means is that Aranda's future in the music industry is in songwriting and arranging.

As for Cota, he has two handicaps.  One, he can do nothing about: his gravelly voice will always be love-it-or-hate-it, just as it's been for a great many successful artists over the years.  (Don't get in between WNTS's Senior Editors when they debate Joe Cocker, whose catalog we expect Cota to turn to for his Woodstock performance this week.)  The other, he can:  his song choices have simply not been good at all.  His Repeat Factor of 2.33 is the highest among S17 finalists.  The sixth of AI17's Final Six, Madison VanDenburg, also has a RF above 2.0 (the other four are under 1.0), but her voice is more easily accessible to most viewers and, frankly, her singing of old Idol chestnuts has been better than Coda's has.

Aranda and Coda had strong pre-competition outings.  They've shown little versatility or growth since the live (or pseudo-live) shows started, however, and web reviewers are undoubtedly factoring that into their weekly scorecards.  We will take a halfhearted shot at the three judges here: their reflexive accolates and virtual lack of meaningfully critical critiques gives Sixth Epoch contestants precisely zero motivation to venture out of their comfort zones.  But, that said, we're not sure what a Simon Cowell or a Harry Connick, Jr. could do to improve the situation.  Wade and Alejandro are older, established, professional singers; they have a niche that they're quite good at, those niches are not everyone's (perhaps not even most people's) cup of tea, and for them to change their styles because one website's network of reviewers have grown weary of them would be, equally frankly, insane.

Plus, there've been plenty of other AI17 contestants who've contributed to that 47.6 season rating.  Semifinalists Riley Thompson and Eddie Island combined for six performances that averaged...ruh-roh...18.7.  Now, truth be told, we are always extremely uncomfortable when contestants who are very young, like 16-year old "Texas Girl" Thompson, or very sweet souls, like 24-year-old "Unofficial Mayor of Nashville" Island, get whacked repeatedly with minuscule ratings.  Yes, they're old enough to know what they were getting themselves into when they auditioned for American Idol, but still, two of us are fathers.  That said...um, yeah...those six outings by and large weren't good.  Island has posted the two lowest ratings of 2019.  Use Somebody's 4 seems very harsh, but even if it deserved another 10-12 points, that still wouldn't have earned it a second star.  Meanwhile, Bennie and the Jets made its 6 the old-fashioned way, as the old Smith-Barney commercials went.  As for Thompson, well, country singers have always been underrated at WNTS, plus she smiled like a happy bride through Jolene, of all songs, and It Must Be Love started out very poorly and never recovered.

All these difficult performances, and quite a few more, explain what's going on with the WNTS ratings, we think.  Though we've all been watching AI for two months, ABC's too-abbreviated schedule means that there've only been 70 competition-night performances thus far.  Eight of them came in at 1-star, another 16 at 2-stars.  At 34%, that's among the highest frequency of sub-40 grades of any season to date.

Just two of those 24 performances – "Under Pressure", and Evelyn Cormier's Dust In The Wind – seem significantly underscored from where we sit.  And, again to be fair, there've been a few others which we felt were awarded v-e-r-y generous ratings along the way, too.  It's a consensus-based rating system, so everyone feels this way about certain performances every year.

The ratings for each S17 episode feels more or less right to us.  Queen Night was actually our favorite thus far (the Disney theme was a disappointment compared to last year), but there were unquestionably some weak performances on Sunday.  That, unfortunately, has been the norm for most of this top-heavy season.  There've been more poor outings than usual; the judges made a few questionable advancement choices; the voters have not been any more adept; the judges don't encourage growth; and Adam Lambert has a day job that would preclude him from taking on the role of AI18 Mentor, much as we'd all love to see it.  All of this has conspired to weigh down the season average.  We'd be floored if it reaches 50.

It's great (and, scientists have shown, healthy) to cultivate a selective memory by remembering the good moments while putting the not-so-good ones out of your mind.  But, databases don't have selective memories, they have eidetic ones.  In WNTS's weird world, every performance counts equally.  This week, given the ominous themes and the remaining cast, we'd expect one or two great performances, a solid majority of acceptable-to-good ones...and, alas, at least one train wreck, maybe two.  Don't fight it; just budget for it.  And, keep your fingers crossed that Idol's success this year might make ABC comfortable enough to stage a longer season in 2020.

- The WNTS.com Team

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