Somewhere in Los Angeles late last Tuesday night, at some British-themed bar down the road from Fox Studios, the producers of American Idol probably gathered to raise a pint to themselves in triumph. Bloggers and journalists were furious that the Season Eight semifinals were totally (and not even subtly) rigged? Fans were griping that the Final 13 were nothing more than a bunch of plants? Well, who's laughing now? Just take a look at the hard numbers from the finals' spectacular kickoff show:
Uh, wait. How'd that last one get in there?
Although WhatNotToSing.com is all about hard data and statistics, we constantly remind our readers not to take any number we publish out of context. This is one of those weekends where the warning applies double-strength. We happen to agree that the performances from Tuesday's show, when considered in a vacuum, were pretty good overall. The song choices were mostly okay, the judges' comments weren't uniformly insipid and were occasionally helpful (which is about all anyone can ask out of that crew), the band sounded pretty good, and Ryan kept things moving along at a nice pace. Really, Michael Jackson Night should have been among the more enjoyable episodes ever.
Nonetheless, we hated it. 54 rating or not, we'd rank it among the five most miserable Idol shows we've ever seen.
The problem in a nutshell is that American Idol has lost all credibility with us. We don't believe for a moment that the group of finalists we watched on Tuesday represent America's Choice. They're 19E's Choice, plain and simple. We believe that at least three contestants, and possibly as many as five, would not have made it out of the semifinals if it weren't for the producers' 500-pound thumbs on the scale (as Julie, one of our email correspondents, aptly put it this week.)
Did the quality of this week's show prove that the producers can assemble a much stronger Final 13 than America ever could? Well, duh!! They're professional entertainment executives and talent scouts, with dozens of employees and decades of collective experience at their disposal. Of course they can pick a better group of singers. If they couldn't, they'd be total incompetents. But, demonstrating basic proficiency in one's chosen field is hardly anything to brag about. Put it this way: if the goal was to put together a world-class team of computer scientists, then our staff could do a far better job of it working on our own than America possibly could via nationwide voting on a Reality TV show. Big fat hairy deal.
What the Idol brain trust seems not to understand, or not to care about, is that their loyal viewers are the ones who put the "American" in American Idol. Without us and our tens of millions of weekly votes, AI is nothing more than a rebooted Star Search with a fancier set and better-looking singers. Without America's passion for judging fresh musical talent, Simon Fuller would be just another successful (though hardly world-famous) music executive. Simon Cowell would be spending too many nights in those Portuguese cabarets he disparages, hoping to find the next Il Divo before the rent on his London flat is due. Ryan Seacrest would still be a morning DJ in L.A., Randy Jackson would be producing record albums in relative obscurity, and we don't even want to think about where Paula Abdul would be except that we hope her medical insurance would've covered it.
One would think that these folks would show a little more respect to the people who made them what they are today. Instead, as each season progresses, they thumb their noses at us more and more. The problem, as we've noted before, is that Idol operates under a fundamental conflict of interest. The people who are responsible for putting on a fair and above-board singing competition are the same ones who represent the top finishers when the contest is complete, and who stand to profit handsomely from it...provided the "right" ones do well, that is. As we once wrote, and which we hope you'll agree is worth repeating: if a baseball umpire's paycheck was calculated as a percentage of the winning team's salary, then the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would hardly ever lose a game and the Florida Marlins would never win one. This...is American Idol.
We've watched the producers' manipulation levels rise steadily from one season to the next as they tried to nudge the voters into making certain choices. Still, we never expected the situation would degrade to what we're seeing now. Since the very first audition episode of 2009, and stretching all the way into the main competition, the Idol brain trust has spent every waking moment working to marginalize, circumvent, and even ignore America's opinions entirely. Their nadir was a Wild Card episode so fraudulent that Ken Warwick should be sharing a jail cell with Bernard Madoff today.
The producers did ratchet down the deceit levels a bit for the Final 13 show, but it doesn't matter. The damage has already been done. Please, just call this dreadful season Producers' Idol and leave we poor Americans out of it.
Just when we thought American Idol had hit rock bottom and couldn't possibly go any lower, it pulled out a jackhammer.
Wednesday's much-hyped results show introduced the "shocking twist" that the producers had hyped for days, and it turned out to be.....a "judges' save". They cannot be serious. Saves are for goalies. Or relief pitchers. Or lifeguards. Perhaps saves might also be for impartial judges in a fair and unbiased competition, but we can't even type that sentence without snickering out loud.
No, the save, as virtually the entire Idolsphere recognized immediately, is nothing more than an insurance policy for 19E. If the voters dare send one of their high Q-rating contestants home before the Final Five (which, ahem, happens to coincide with the all-important May "sweeps" month), the producers will simply overrule them. It's as if they just grabbed America by the lapels and snarled, "When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you. Just keep forking over the money and don't ask questions."
We can't quite find the right words to express our opinion of the new save rule, though some of these come close. What we can say, however, is this: if American Idol had been run this godawfully from the get-go, we never would have started our humble little website. Seven summers ago, a cute Texas waitress wowed America and launched herself to superstardom thanks in part to one superb song choice after another, and we naïvely though we might help others to do the same. Here in Season Eight, however, and we say this with a heavy heart, WhatNotToSing.com is about as useful as a site advising you what brands of gum you should or should not chew when being attacked by a shark. It really makes no difference what you do or do not sing. All that matters is that you have a pretty face, a compelling sob-story background, and that when the producers run your Hollywood clips past their internal focus groups in December, the needle jumps off the chart. If so, you can sing "Mairzy Doats" on national TV for three solid months, maybe in a different language every week. The producers will have your back.
(By the way, while we admit we're not all that relevant to the new Producers' Idol, we hope we're still entertaining enough that you'll keep stopping by to visit!)
Last spring, in something of a whimsical moment, we suggested that American Idol appoint an independent ombudsman to oversee the competition and to slap the producers' wrists publicly when their manipulation gets out of hand. Yes, we realized that the notion of hiring an ombudsman for a cheesy Reality TV show is so incongruous as to be funny.
This year, we're not laughing. Fuller and his lackeys can no longer be trusted to run this franchise. It's not even enough for them simply to go back to the old Top 24 format. Like we said, the damage has been done. Someone trustworthy has to take over the competition phase from them, beginning next year, without exception. 19E will still make tens of millions of dollars from owning the TV series. If the voters happen to choose a marketable winner, they'll make tens of millions more in royalties and representation fees. If not, then that first armored carful of money will have to last them until the following January. We hope they'll survive on it.
Several folks across the Idolsphere have theorized that Simon Cowell informed the producers last summer that he planned to walk away when his contract expires at the end of next season. Figuring that American Idol was doomed anyway, 19E decided to turn these final two seasons into an extended pep rally for their most promising plants. We aren't sure if that hypothesis is plausible or not, though we do believe that something happened this summer that convinced the producers that their golden egg-laying goose was about to be cooked. Otherwise, they would not be systematically destroying their show and alienating viewers on a weekly basis.
However, if the long-term health of Idol still matters to them, and if the series is to heal its wounds and turn its fortunes around, then someone outside the current power structure needs to come to the rescue. Forget about saving contestants. The producers need to be saved from themselves.
(PS to the producers: Bless your souls for getting rid of that godawful mosh pit this year. Don't ever say we never throw you guys a kind word.)
- The WNTS.com Team