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Better Living Through Botany

The producers hand-picked the Final 13. Woe be to them if their plants don't bloom.

If you're a loyal fan of American Idol, you're probably feeling a little bit shellshocked this weekend.  It's as if you'd just learned that that lowdown, good-for-nothing lover of yours was cheating on you...again!  OK, so maybe you knew all along that they were lying philanderers, and maybe you'd even caught them in the act once or twice.  But never in broad daylight...in the front yard...with four different hussies...with camera crews from CNN and 60 Minutes filming all the action...and all under a huge neon sign advertising "Cheating!  Here!  Now!!".  We mean, yeah, that hurts a little.

So let's all take a deep breath, slam down another shot of Old Eyeopener whiskey, and face a few hard facts.  The AI8 Top 13 was rigged from the start.  As we first noted on our home page earlier this week (and which is reprinted below), American Idol spotlighted 15 of the 36 eventual semifinalists with glitzy "pimp pieces" that aired during the audition episodes.  Lo and behold, 11 of those 15 people just happened to make the Finals.  That group includes all four Wild Card advancers, in a brazenly scripted show that set Reality TV back ten years.  Ricky Braddy and Jesse Langseth might've gotten a fairer trial in the old Soviet Union.

At any rate, there is little point in continuing to rage against the producers.  Remember, Simon Fuller and Co. are professional entertainment executives.  They may be clumsy and shameless and often woefully ignorant of American human nature, but they are neither suicidal nor evil at heart.  (Well, not exceptionally evil, anyway.)  Yes, they set out to pull the wool over America's eyes this year, and while they probably hoped to have gotten away with it a little more cleanly, they were surely prepared for the possibility that they wouldn't.  The backlash and anger that they're currently enduring from their fans had been factored into the Risk Analysis Report months ago.

So why do it at all?  That's easy.  It's because they think they know something that we don't.

The Reforestization of American Idol

Idol's TV ratings peaked in 2007 and are now on a significant downslope.  Nielsen ratings so far this year are down more than 20%, a staggering amount.  We aren't so foolish as to predict that the show is on its way to cancellation or anything.  However, it does seem as though its bubble has burst, so to speak, and that it will soon be just another popular seasonal TV series like Survivor.

Most analysts trace the source of the slide to Season Six, a disaster for the franchise for a multitude of reasons that we won't go into here (and which you already know anyway).  Among other things, the Final 12 that year were, by and large, ordinary.  Many were everyday auditioners with good voices but unexceptional personalities and little in the way of backstories.

Evidently, 19E decided that normalcy was the root of the problem.  Thus, the last two seasons have brought us a garden's worth of "plants", the Idolsphere's derisive term for professional singers who were recruited personally by the producers to be contestants on the show in exchange for national exposure and promotion.

Yes, Virginia, most of your Top 13 this year are of the photosynthesing variety.  That adorable one you fell in love with, the one whose name you can't type in your favorite forum without adding a couple of animated hearts and cheering smileys?  He's a plant.  The inspiring one?  He's a plant too.  The one whose backstory made you cry?  Hey, plants need lots of water so that'll work just fine.

Last summer, in an off-season editorial that only a handful of WNTS visitors saw, we expressed our fear that American Idol was moving away from its grass-roots origins.  Just ignore the bit about Kyle Ensley – we cheerfully admit that we, unlike Paula Abdul, can't predict the future with astounding accuracy.  However, we were correct about a few things, not the least of which that there are more recruits than ever in Season Eight, and that the producers didn't disclose to viewers this January that some of the auditions in a particular city were invitation-only affairs held separately from the main tryouts.

So now the producers' motto is clear: better living through botany.  They no longer wish to risk having too many amateurs in the money rounds; they're too raw, too fragile, too prone to crash-and-burn performances, and just too darn uncontrollable.  Season Six probably scared the bejeezus out of 19E, and we're not talking about just Sanjaya Malakar, either.  Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis were two fiercely independent artists whose head-butting with the producers is the stuff of legend.  (For example, if you are wondering why semifinal song choices the past two seasons have been limited to widely-known pop hits, with the producers having the final word, click through to see what those two sang in their first three outings.)

No, far safer for Idol to "cast" the Finals (Simon Cowell's exact term) with proven talents, compelling personalities, plenty of stage experience...and, not incidentally, a strong motivation to stay in line and in character for three months.  The payoff for both parties is potentially huge.  In hindsight, it's kind of amazing it took as long as it did to reach this stage.

Holy Cow, I Think He's Gonna Make It...

Stop right there!  The producers strategy is not without its own dangers, too.  Among other things, selling what little of their souls they had left has also cost them their few remaining shreds of credibility.  They've managed to turn off an astounding number of fans in just two months, and those folks are returning the favor – literally.  From coast to coast, one can hear a symphony of channels being changed.

Only one end can justify these means, and that's unqualified success.  We will drop our usual highbrow tone for a moment and put it simply: the Top 13 has to kick ass, big time.  It has to produce consistent high quality, showstopping performances (thus far, no one's gotten above 82), water-cooler moments, a juicy controversy or three, a gripping race to the Finale, and a hugely lucrative tour and winner's album.

If it does, then to our sorrow most viewers will forgive and forget the sham semifinals.  By demonstrating that they can indeed pick a better Final 13 than America can, the producers' gamble will have paid off

If it doesn't, and especially if a bad case of leaf rot sweeps through the greenhouse, things are going to get ugly in a hurry.  The Idolsphere will fondly remember Braddy, Felicia Barton, and Ju'Not Joyner, a trio of unheralded "weeds" who averaged nearly 70 in their four semifinal performances before being given the bum's rush out the door, and who we suspect would have been heavy favorites to make the Finals under the old Top 24 format.  They'll remember Langseth, who arguably never gave a truly good performance but who never failed to give an interesting one.  They'll remember a few other semifinalists too, ones who may have fallen well short on their first try but whom America might've decided was worth one more shot.  (Around here, that'd be Jackie Tohn, Stephen Fowler, and Nate Marshall; your mileage may vary.)  Most ominously, they'll remember all of them when deciding whether to tune in next January for AI9.

Since Season Three, the finalists who advanced out of the semifinals have comparable approval ratings

What are the producers' prospects of landing on their feet?  The chart at right shows the average approval ratings of each season's finalists at the end of the semifinals.  Season Two was an anomaly; otherwise, there's not a whole lot of variance.  So far, the producers have roughly broken even.  Obviously they feel there is an enormous amount of potential locked inside this group, and they might even be correct, but the WNTS numbers neither support nor contradict them thus far.

(Incidentally, not that we are cynics or anything, but expect unusually charitable critiques from the judges over the next few weeks, Kris Allen excepted.  He's the unplanned guest in the Final 12, and the producers will likely want him out of the picture as soon as possible.  Otherwise, we believe they'll want to build up the remaining contestants strongly to build buzz.  Scripting the semifinals only to rip the contestants out of the chute would essentially scream to America, "Our hand-picked plants stink!  We're total imbeciles!  Why are you still watching??!")

American Idol has long pined for the chance to sideline the ever-fickle voters and choose the Final 12 themselves.  This year, they got their wish.  We're reminded of the tale about the dog who chased cars his entire life, until one day he actually caught one.  Now what?, he wondered.  We're waiting for the producers to answer that, too.

Addendum

Below is the original report we posted on the WhatNotToSing.com home page on Wednesday, March 4th, 2009, the night before the Wild Card show. We've reproduced it here to serve as a permanent reminder to our readers as to how the AI8 finalists were really chosen. - Ed.

Well, isn't this curious....

As our regular readers know, we have been actively collecting information about all past and present Idol contestants as part of our ongoing Fill In The Blanks project. One of our targets is to determine the pre-semifinals exposure of each contestant, because we plan to run an Idolmetrics study that determines the effect, if any, it plays on the long-term survival rate. To keep it manageable, we divided exposure up into five broad categories: None , Minimal, Hollywood, Audition, and Promo. An explanation of each level can be found by clicking through the link above.

The highest level is Promo, which indicates that the contestant was the subject of an extended promotional segment (often called a "Pimp Piece" by the Idolsphere.) This is when the producers usually (but not always) make the effort to send a camera crew to a person's house or work and show the family, but definitely do air an extended interview, have the cameras following them around the audition site, and include lots of dramatic montage and cut shots plus the usual swelling inspirational music in the background, etc., etc. By contrast, we consider the next level down, Audition, to be footage of the audition plus perhaps a simple interview with Ryan before and/or afterwards, but all at the audition site and without too much fanfare. Though the dividing line isn't always as clean as we'd like, very few contestants fall into that gray area. If the producers are pimping someone, they generally don't pussyfoot around.

At any rate, perhaps you would be interested to learn the identities of the 15 Season Eight contestants who were assigned a "Promo" exposure level by us and our volunteer researchers. Keep in mind that we made these designations several weeks ago, and of course that all Promo pieces aired during the Audition rounds, long before the main competition began.

  • Adam Lambert *
  • Alexis Grace *
  • Anoop Desai †
  • Danny Gokey *
  • Jasmine Murray †
  • Jorge Nunez *
  • Kai Kalama
  • Lil Rounds *
  • Matt Giraud †
  • Meghan Corkrey †
  • Michael Sarver *
  • Nick Mitchell
  • Scott Macintyre *
  • Tatiana Del Toro †
  • Von Smith †

An asterisk (*) indicates the contestant is already a finalist as voted by America; note that seven of the nine pimpees made it through by the voters. (Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta are the two others.)

A cross (†) indicates a Wild Card participant, as chosen by the producers judges. Note that six of tonight's eight participants had Pimp Pieces aired back in January.

Now, we are sure it is by the purest of coincidences that so many pimpees were called back for the Wild Card show. We're absolutely certain that their invitations were solely because the judges felt that their original performances were among the eight strongest of the 27 non-advancers. We wouldn't dream of suggesting that the entire competition is rigged, or that the producers knew exactly whom they wanted in the Top 12 since long before the new season started, or that Ricky Braddy and Jesse Langseth (two cannon fodders who happen to have created so much buzz from their original performances that the producers couldn't ignore them) have any less chance of being selected for the Finals than the six the producers spent so much time and effort building up.

No, we're confident that the producers were simply so uncannily foresighted that, of the 17 people who will be given the opportunity to sing two or more times on American Idol this year, they just happened to predict 13 of them before the season started. And we're equally sure that Braddy and Langseth will be given a fair, honest, equitable chance tonight to sing their way into the Finals. Really. We mean that.

(For further reading on this sore subject, check out Leo The Idol Guy or EW.com's Michael Slezak or virtually any message board or blog today across the Idolsphere.)

- The WNTS.com Team

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