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The Simon Peter Principle

Selling The Drama and Cursing The Darkness on American Idol

A famous Chinese proverb states that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  Mind you, the ancient Chinese never had to deal with the producers of American Idol.  If they had, we suspect they'd have advised you instead not only to curse those dark lords, but also to throw your candles at them as they tried to run away.  Roman candles, preferably.

We'll try to look on the bright side of things before the end of this weekend's editorial, but first let's recap the darkness.  Season Eight is unquestionably off to a rocky start.  The average approval rating from Wednesday's Group 2 show was a bleak 43.8, ranking it 31st among the 40 semifinal episodes to date.  Those disappointing numbers might not get the producers' attention, but we bet these will: Idol's Nielsen ratings fell once more, putting them down more than 15% overall from this time last season.

Neither our ratings nor Nielsen's reflect fan satisfaction with the show, of course.  For that, you'll need to do some traveling across the boards and blogs of the Idolsphere.  Now, we should emphasize that complaints about the new season tend to peak during the semifinals, often taking the form "This &*^!% season stinks compared to Season ____"  Still, our team has analyzed American Idol for many years now, and we've never seen anything near this level of unhappiness and dissatisfaction among the show's loyal fans.

Who or what is to blame for this mess?  The new, breathtakingly bad semifinal format of course, though that's such an easy target that we'll (mostly) hold our fire this week.  A lack of early showstoppers certainly hasn't helped – Allison Iraheta has produced the one and only 5-star performance thus far, though Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace just missed..  And, let's be fair, AI is now eight years old, an eternity by television standards.  The bloom eventually comes off every rose.

Here at WNTS.com, we still believe that a major factor is that the music has been getting stale, particularly in recent seasons.  Last year's Achilles heel was song age; so far this year it's been reruns.  This past week, six more contestants chose songs that had been performed on Idol before, running AI8's total to 15 "covers" among the first 24 performances.  That's a Repeat Factor of a staggering 62.5%, dwarfing that of every previous season.  If the chart below doesn't cause your jaw to drop, you'd better see your dentist.  You might have TMJ.

Through the first two weeks, AI8's song repeat factor of 63% is over 25 percentage points greater than any other season thus far

The Cost Of Dramatic Effect

We feel one other factor in the slide cannot be overlooked.  The Idol brain trust made a deliberate decision this year to emphasize personality, backstory, and conflict.  Apparently they felt that the reason the last two seasons didn't measure up to Season Five, considered by many to be the series' pinnacle, is that the contestants weren't interesting enough to America.  Hence, since the very first audition show in January, AI8 has been all about selling the drama.

What has this meant for viewers?  Well, during the audition weeks, a record fourteen different semifinalists were the subject of an extended backstory feature segment (a.k.a. a "pimp piece".)  No previous season has had more than nine.  Hollywood Week coverage was an abomination from start to finish.  The Group Night show featured less than six(!) minutes of actual, on-stage singing wrapped around 54 minutes of commercials, cursing, and catfights.  The Final Performances episode wasn't much better: as much airtime was spent on the contestants squatting anxiously on the floor of a hotel conference room (chairs, evidently, having been victims of the show's budgetary cutbacks) than of them actually, you know, singing.

By the time the main competition got underway, featuring a dizzying 36 semifinalists, America knew many of the contestants' life stories but precious little about their actual talent.  The sheer size of the cast made it difficult for viewers to keep track of who had sung well thus far but easy to remember who'd been heavily promoted.  The drive-by semifinal format further ensured that viewers wouldn't get too great of an opportunity to form their own opinions.  To clean up any loose ends, Thursday's wildcard show will sideline the viewers entirely and see the producers judges alone deciding who the last three finalists will be.

We have never been naive enough to believe that American Idol was a truly fair singing competition.  The producers have always been a domineering lot, for one simple reason: their goal is to make as much money as possible.  They can do that more readily if certain contestants advance ahead of others, regardless of who happens to be the more deserving.  Drama sells.  If you're a golf fan, consider how many millions of dollars were lost to the organizers of this week's World Match Play Championships when Tiger Woods was ousted in the second round.  19E no doubt looks at them and thinks, "Suckers!"  If they ran the tournament, Woods would be in Sunday's final twosome even if he shot 104 in each of his first five matches and killed three spectators with errant tee shots.

Still, never has 19E's machinations been as blatant as this year's.  To ensure a Final 12 to their liking, they have dropped almost all pretenses of impartiality.  Our own expectations for them get lower and lower each season, from "Run a fair and honest singing competition", to "Keep the plants and manipulation to a reasonable minimum", to "For the love of God, at least make some effort to conceal your treachery."

Et Tu, Simon?

When Nigel Lythgoe resigned last summer as Executive Producer of American Idol, many fans of the show rejoiced.  We'll admit that we were among them.  Lythgoe's affection for old music and older mentors, plus his penchant for, as EW's Michael Slezak aptly put it, "meticulously scripting every second of the show", had worn on us.  Some fresh faces and fresh ideas behind the scenes were just what the show needed, we felt.

Sadly, Lythgoe's departure seems to be another lesson of, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it."  His replacements seem to have concluded, astoundingly, that Lythgoe put too little emphasis on drama and that he wasn't manipulative enough.  That's a little like looking at Kate Moss and deciding that she needs to lose weight.

Even more sadly, we're pretty sure we know the identity of one of these new driving forces.  For several years now, Simon Cowell has been outspoken in the media about his desire to have more "personalities" on the show.  He once retorted irritatedly to a critic that if he put 24 good singers into the semifinals, Idol would be "boring."  He's on record as stating that one of his favorite contestants was Brenna Gethers (average WNTS approval rating: 10.0), primarily because she was "a complete and utter nightmare."  Do a Google search and you'll find much, much more along those lines.

We are a little reluctant to criticize Simon too harshly, partly because in our opinion he's the star of the show and the number one reason behind its immense popularity.  But if our guess is correct and he's now more involved in the backstage process than ever, then he has to be held accountable for the ongoing debacle.  Simon might be the best judge in reality TV history, but even the best are susceptible to the famous Peter Principle: "In any organization, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

On the bright side, we think the producers greatly underestimated the depth and ferocity of the backlash they'd face over this season's shenanigans.  The only way to compel them to correct their mistakes and improve the product is for fans to express their dissatisfaction forcefully.  We hope the Idolsphere keeps the heat on them throughout the season...one candle at a time.

- The WNTS.com Team

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