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Long Train Wreckin'

...or, "The Perils of Mis-Pimping on American Idol"

Ever hear the one about the eternal optimist who'd shrug his shoulders and say "Well, it could've be worse" to any piece of bad news?  One evening he arrived home to find police cars and ambulances lining his street, lights flashing and people running everywhere.  Asking a friend what had happened, he learned that his next-door neighbor had come home early from work, found his wife having an affair with another neighbor, and in a fit of rage he grabbed his gun, shot both of them, and then shot himself.  Our hero contemplated this for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Well, it could've been worse."  This angered his friend, who demanded to know how this horrible situation could possibly have been any more tragic.  "If he'd come home early yesterday instead," replied the optimist softly, "he'd have shot me."

...Ahem.  Okay, so joke-telling isn't what we do best around here.  Still, after last Tuesday's dismal Billboard #1 Hits episode, and the pitch-black mood that Idol Nation is in this weekend, a little bit of humor can't hurt.  Plus, given that there are still two full months to go in what some fear is shaping up as a death march of a season, we American Idol fans all need a reason to keep looking on the bright side.

Thus, your eternally optimistic WNTS staff is here to inform you, "Well, it could've been worse."

Before you heave your keyboard at our heads, let us explain.  Remember a couple months ago how it was widely rumored that Michael Lynche had been disqualified because his father had told the local newspaper that his son had made the Top 24?  Remember just a few weeks ago when Type-I diabetic Crystal Bowersox was rushed to the hospital, presumably in insulin shock, and it was highly doubtful that she'd be able to continue in the competition?

Imagine if both scenarios had indeed come to pass,  Instead of Lynche and Bowersox in the Top 10 right now, we might have had two more Tim Urbans.

Say it with us now: "Well, it could've been worse."

The hard numbers for Season Nine so far aren't pretty.  With 83 of an anticipated 156 performances in the books, the average approval rating stands at 46.0.  That's more than two and a half points behind the next lowest-rated season, AI1 at 48.6.  Ratings generally trend upwards as the Finals go along, so there's still a decent chance that the Niners will ultimately claw themselves out of the cellar.  But to get to a level 50 for the season, they'll have to average 54.5 from here on out.  Given that the top-rated episode they've produced thus far was the Top 20 Girls show, which came in at 52.8, we're not being snarky when we say that we don't fancy their chances.

As for last Tuesday's mess: oddly enough, we're inclined to cut the kids a break.  It's apparent that something unusual happened in mid-week to prompt the producers to change themes over the weekend – an American Idol first, as far as we can remember.  The folks at 19E are in full circle-the-wagons mode, so we're not likely to learn the true story until after the season, if ever.  At any rate, based on the general raggedness of the evening, it seems plausible to assume that at least some of the contestants had to make a late song switch to one of Idol's stock, pre-cleared chestnuts.  That's never a recipe for success.

It's also apparent now that AI9 will never fully overcome its disastrous Top 16 results show.  To illustrate this, let's run a little thought experiment.  This is the fifth season in which American Idol has employed the three-round, Guys & Girls semifinal format.  Below you'll find the participants in the Top 16 for each year, along with their average approval rating for their three semifinal performances only....

SEASON FOUR
Rank Contestant SF Rtg
1. Bo Bice 83
2. Anwar Robinson 78
3. Nadia Turner 75
4. Carrie Underwood 68
5. Jessica Sierra 62
6. Vonzell Solomon 60
7. Nikko Smith 60
8. Mario Vasquez 60
9. Anthony Fedorov 45
10. Lindsey Cardinale 42
11. Amanda Avila 42
12. Scott Savol 37
  Mikalah Gordon 37
  Const'n. Maroulis 36
  Travis Tucker 29
  Janay Castine 9
SEASON FIVE
Rank Contestant SF Rtg
1. Chris Daughtry 84
2. Mandisa 79
3. Elliott Yamin 74
4. Taylor Hicks 73
5. Katharine McPhee 66
6. Lisa Tucker 62
7. Paris Bennett 56
8. Gedeon McKinney 55
9. Ayla Brown 53
10. Ace Young 50
11. Melissa McGhee 49
12. Bucky Covington 46
  Kellie Pickler 43
  Will Makar 39
  Kevin Covais 30
  Kinnik Sky 27
SEASON SIX
Rank Contestant SF Rtg
1. Melinda Doolittle 91
2. LaKisha Jones 77
3. Blake Lewis 74
4. Chris Sligh 73
5. Stephanie Edwards 69
6. Sabrina Sloan 63
7. Jordin Sparks 61
8. Gina Glocksen 59
9. Chris Richardson 50
10. Phil Stacey 48
11. Jared Cotter 37
12. Brandon Rogers 35
  Sundance Head 31
  Haley Scarnato 29
  Sanjaya Malakar 14
  Antonella Barba 13
SEASON SEVEN
Rank Contestant SF Rtg
1. David Archuleta 78
2. David Cook 72
3. Brooke White 71
4. Carly Smithson 70
5. Jason Castro 69
6. David Hernandez 67
7. Michael Johns 62
8. Ramiele Malubay 59
9. Syesha Mercado 52
10. Asia'h Epperson 45
11. Chikezie 44
12. Amanda Overmyer 36
  Danny Noriega 35
  Kristy Lee Cook 33
  Kady Malloy 27
  Luke Menard 19
SEASON NINE
Rank Contestant SF Rtg
1. Crystal Bowersox 86
2. Siobhan Magnus 77
3. Michael Lynche 64
4. Casey James 63
5. Lilly Scott 63
6. Katelyn Epperly 60
7. Lee DeWyze 59
8. Didi Benami 57
9. Alex Lambert 50
10. Andrew Garcia 48
11. Aaron Kelly 37
12. Katie Stevens 36
  Todrick Hall 32
  Paige Miles 31
  Lacey Brown 29
  Tim Urban 28

As you see, with the exception of Season 5, the twelve top-rated semifinalists each year are on a rough par with one another.  About three-quarters averaged 50 or above, the rest hung around 3-star or high 2-star territory, and the four stragglers were, well, straggling.  AI5's dynamic dozen was sick good from top to bottom, but you already knew that.  (Keep in mind, though, that a mere three weeks later, this "sick good" group would cough up the lowest-rated Finals episode to date...and it came after Kevin Covais was eliminated.  Just shows that duds can happen to anyone.)

Notice too that three of AI9's "optimum 12" got the axe in the Top 16 – #5 Lilly Scott, #6 Katelyn Epperly, and #9 Alex Lambert.  In their stead are the three lowest-rated semifinalists.  Our colleague Leo, The Idol Guy has theorized that the perceived quality of an AI season is directly proportional not to the strength of the front-runners, but the strength of the "mid-card" – the contestants from roughly #5 to #10.  They largely determine whether the early Finals shows are enjoyable or not, and so set the mood for the ultimate showdown between the big dogs.

Let's put that theory to the test.  What if those previous four seasons suffered the same unkind fate as AI9 in their respective Top 16s?  In other words, what if semifinalists numbers five, six, and nine (or as close as possible) had been bounced each year in favor of the lowest-rated eliminees?  Here's how that would have affected the Finals' lineups:

  • In AI4, we'd have lost either Jessica Sierra or Vonzell Solomon, plus Anthony Fedorov.  Instead, we'd have had Travis Tucker and Janay Castine.  Sierra and Fedorov for those two is a pretty dismal trade, and we don't even want to discuss what losing Solomon and Fedorov would've done to that season.  (Scott Savol as the third-place finisher, anyone?)
  • In the popular AI5, we'd have traded either Katharine McPhee or Lisa Tucker, plus Ace Young, for Will Makar and Kinnik Sky.  Once again, the best-case scenario (Tucker and Young) is unappetizing, and the worst case one (losing McPhee) is nauseating.
  • In AI6, out goes Stephanie Edwards and Chris Richardson, replaced by the dulcet tones of Antonella Barba and Sundance Head.  Considering that AI6 is already regarded by many fans as the worst Idol season so far (not the least because sixth-rated semifinalist Sabrina Sloan failed to advance), it's not too far-fetched to say that this swap might've done irreparable harm to the franchise.
  • In AI7, another highly popular season, Jason Castro, David Hernandez, and Syesha Mercado would've gone home, and Danny Noriega, Luke Menard, and Kady Malloy would have taken their places.  One of them would have sung at least three more times.  Enough said.

This is a purely subjective conclusion, of course, but we think Leo's theory looks pretty darn sound.  None of the hypothetically "lost" contestants wound up winning in real life, of course, but most of them generally made the months of March and April palatable.  Similarly, we rather doubt that Scott, Epperly, or Lambert would've worn the crown in 2010, but we're certain that the Idolsphere would've found the journey to the Finale a lot less frustrating.

Given that most of the Niners had been improving more or less steadily the past few weeks, we're willing to cross our fingers and write off last Tuesday night as an anomaly.  We'll conclude with a simple observation.  Two weeks ago, in our editorial entitled "March Madness", we published a table (scroll about halfway down) showing the preseason exposure of the 24 semifinalists, and we highlighted the names of those who made it to the Final 12.  Six of the eight contestants who received one of those heart-tugging "pimp pieces" got through.

All six are, to no WNTS reader's surprise, still alive.  Only Katie Stevens has even made an appearance in the Bottom Three so far.

We think it's fair to say that the producers, to coin a phrase, "mis-pimped" this year.  Unfortunately, when they miscalculate in January, we viewers pay for it all spring with a long run of avoidable train wrecks.  The question isn't which contestants 19E should have pre-promoted instead.  It's why, with the show firmly established as an unqualified smash, they continue to put through auditioners based on personality and backstory, and then promote certain semifinalists over others at all.  Particularly as the consequences of mis-pimping are so perilous.

- The WNTS.com Team

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