If you're of the philosophy that the end justifies the means, you probably enjoyed American Idol's seventh season quite a lot. The five-month journey was ragged, unfocused, and even plodding at times, and it was punctuated liberally with the sort of pointless, irritating controversies that only the folks at 19E still seem to enjoy. Yet at the end of the road, the last two contestants standing were arguably the strongest Final Two the series has ever produced (AI2 fans are free to disagree.) David Cook already has two hit singles to his credit plus tremendous potential as a pop star, even if his debut album wasn't quite the rock classic we'd hoped for.
So is all well and good in Simonland? Well, no. The long slog to the Finale clearly took its toll on the viewers. Ratings were down last year for the first time in the show's history, and fan dissatisfaction was up. Most outside analysts agreed: the Idol formula was getting old and the show's unprecedented magic was finally starting to wear off.
To the producers' credit, they recognized this too. Over the past few months, they've announced several significant changes to the format for Season Eight. Kara DioGuardi brings a fresh face and hopefully a fresh perspective to the judges' panel. There will be less emphasis on bad first round auditions (excellent; we love the entertainingly bad wannabes but we can do without all of the boringly bad ones), and more coverage of Hollywood Week and the eventual semifinalists. All of these are promising and welcome moves, and we're not just saying that because we happened to suggest them months ago.
But there's one announced change this year that has us scratching our heads: the return of the Wild Card format from the first three seasons. Here's how it will work. There will be a record 36(!) semifinalists in AI8, competing in three groups of 12. The three highest vote-getters each week advance to the finals. The fourth-place finisher automatically gets an invitation to the Wild Card show along with nine other also-rans of the judges' choosing. They'll perform against one another in the fourth week, and the judges alone will decide which three will fill out the Final 12.
Most Idol-watchers in the media are quite pleased by this move. Sorry, but we're not among them. We never cared for the Wild Card format much, for a variety of reasons. One, it means that certain contestants would perform one time, wow the entire country, and then disappear off our TV screens for a month. Given that American Idol is all about allowing unknown singers to build a fanbase, we can't quite see how this is to anyone's benefit. Two, it means two fewer semifinal shows than under the old format. Three, and most importantly, the judges' track record of choosing wild card advancers has been, uh, let's call it "spotty at best". On second thought, let's call it "abysmal". For every late-blooming Jennifer Hudson brought back from oblivion, there've been two Carmen Rasmusens and Leah LaBelles. That's not a success rate that inspires a whole lot of confidence.
Ah well, not every change is bound to be to our liking. We're pleased that the producers aren't standing pat for AI8, and we're hopeful that the good innovations will ultimately outweigh the bad. Now if we can just get the Idol machine to announce that the themes and music for this season will be at least 20 years younger than last year....
- The WNTS.com Team