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Survey Says....

The recent American Idol opinion survey hints at the future direction of the franchise

It's generally considered bad form to conduct an autopsy before the patient is actually, you know,...dead.  However, if 19E can jump the gun, then so can we.

As Season Nine of American Idol limps to its repose, all eyes are already on Season Ten.  Thus far, we know only two things about it.  One, the rightmost seat at the judges' table will have a new occupant.  Two, if that's the only significant change the producers make this off-season, then there won't be a Season Eleven.

In the past, Idol was strong enough to withstand a down year or two.  Those fans complaining that AI9 is the worst season in the history of entertainment, dating back to cave paintings, have spotty memories.  Season One was dreadful, and were it not for Kelly Clarkson, the show would've died a peaceful death then and there.  Season Three set the standard for absurdity from all corners: producers, judges, contestants, and voters alike.  Season Six...well, we'll get to that in a moment.  And although the last two seasons served up some quality talent, the judges' antics and producers' manipulation were so egregious that, both times, the viewers revolted at the end by crowning an out-of-the-blue winner.

So if Season Nine has been a disappointment...and make no mistake, it has...it's not as though we haven't been here before.  In fact, we went through much the same drudgery just three years ago.  AI6 and AI9 share quite a lot of DNA.  Both seasons featured a female contestant who, at least early on, pulverized the field on a weekly basis – Melinda Doolittle and Crystal Bowersox.  Both offered as a foil a free-spirited, headstrong artist who delighted in ignoring all attempts to get them to conform to the Idol Quo – Blake Lewis and Siobhan Magnus.  A relatively weak undercard meant that America had to spend two humdrum months pruning the field, and a surfeit of safe ballad choices didn't make the job any more pleasant.  We won't even discuss the eerie parallels between the two 7th-place finishers, except to say that one of them at least turned in a handful of decent performances, and the other, er, didn't.

Our colleague The Idol Guy has theorized that American Idol runs in three-year cycles, which he calls "epochs".  Year One of the epoch brings significant change to the fabric of the show (AI1: genesis; AI4: musical diversity; AI7: well-rounded musicians and artists).  In Year Two, most of the bugs are worked out and the cycle reaches its apex.  Finally, Year Three brings a sharp downslope as the motif becomes predictable, at which point the epoch naturally plays itself out.

If TIG is correct, then the general ennui of this season should come as no surprise.  The worrisome part, however, is what comes next.  After AI3 and AI6, we viewers had an inkling of the direction that Idol was headed.  Performances like Summertime, Take Me To The Pilot, and the woefully underapprecied Sin Wagon demonstrated that there was an abundance of excellent material that lay beyond Epoch One's prosaic pop-and-R&B fare.  Similarly, the game-changing thunderclap of You Give Love A Bad Name showed that, with a little bit of musical imagination, even the most familiar of songs could be made to sound brand new.  In the dying moments of one epoch, the outline of the next was already taking shape.

And that's why we're so blue as AI9 approaches the finish line.  Certainly here at the WNTS offices, and seemingly around the entire Idolsphere as well, none of us have any clue what the Fourth Epoch will be like.  Nothing this season provided the sort of jolt that had even casual viewers buzzing and hardcore fans screaming for more.  We Idolphiles have to confront the difficult but very real possibility that American Idol's once-bottomless bag of tricks might finally be empty,

As you know, Idol viewership has been declining steadily since its high-water mark in Season Six.  Its Nielsen ratings dropped about 10% on average for AI7, another 10% during AI8, and so far in AI9...um, don't ask.  In the past three years, over one-third of AI fans have either dropped off the face of the earth or...even worse from Simon Fuller's viewpoint...changed the channel to Dancing With The Stars.

After several years of organized denial, 19E seems finally ready to acknowledge that there's trouble in River City.  During Final Four week, visitors to AmericanIdol.com unexpectedly saw an invitation to participate in an AI-commissioned marketing survey.  Even more stunning was the fact that the questions were, for the most part, cold, relevant, and to the point.

Very few punches were pulled.  What do you think of Ellen?  How would you feel if we didn't bring her back next year?  How about Ryan, Randy or Kara?  Do you like the Judges' Save rule?  The addition of musical instruments?  Do you want to see more mentors or fewer, or different themes, or better contestants, or more backstage drama?

To be honest, some of the questions made us nervous.  ("Do you want to see Paula return to the judges' panel next season?", with no option for "I'd rather be eaten alive by badgers").  Other questions that really should've been asked were omitted.  ("If we replaced Ryan and the judges with potted plants and just let the contestants sing for an hour, from how far away could we hear your screams of joy?  Pasadena, Des Moines, Reykjavik, or Mars?")  That said, we were overall quite pleased by the survey.  It seems that big changes...finally, blessedly, belatedly...are coming to American Idol.

Now comes the really scary part.  Exactly what will those changes entail?

Based on the online questionnaire, we believe that the producers are weighing four strategies, or some combination thereof.

  • Option 1, we'll dub Idol Ultra-Rewind.  Paula returns, instruments vanish, and the contestant pool reverts to the big-voiced, stand-and-belt variety of Epoch Alpha.  Simon's replacement is a rude, opinionated boor with the obligatory British accent.  Returning to co-host the show: Brian Dunkelm—...er, well, probably they won't go that far.  But the general idea would be to turn back the clock to 2003 and hope that 12 million former fans suddenly rematerialize.
  • Option 2 is Singing With The Stars.  With DWTS successfully siphoning off viewers using celebrity appeal, however "B"-List it may be, AI decides to fight fire with fire.  Mentors become more numerous, more luminous, and far more involved in the show.  Perhaps the contestants would be required to sing a duet with each week's guest star.  Taking this a step further, perhaps Idol goes full-Monty and pairs up each finalist with his or her "dream" musical mentor for the duration of the competition, to work as a team.  The built-in star factor might keep viewers engaged even if the contestants turn out to be as exciting as spackle.
  • Option 3, which could easily be combined with #2, is Masterpiece(-Of-Work) Theater.  AI ramps up the melodrama via a gaggle of contestants lacking social skills, a new set of judges lacking scruples and/or tact, and a series of mentors who are famous mostly for being walking train wrecks (though DWTS might've cornered the market there.)  The cameras would run 24/7, of course, and contestants and judges alike would be encouraged to backbite, undermine, scheme against, and/or sleep with each other, preferably simultaneously.  To ensure that backstage alliances are as important as musical arrangements, the Idols would also be given some say as to who stays and who goes home: a Contestants' Save, perhaps, or a Survivor-like tribunal in which the safe contestants decide who among the Bottom Three gets the boot.
  • Finally, Option 4 involves stronger talent, fewer judges, more singing, longer performances, far less talk and fluff, newer songs, zero manipulation...in short, the things that the Idolsphere has been pleading for since roughly ten minutes into the first audition episode of AI1.  We'd call this one the Shut Up And Sing approach.  The producers took a few baby steps in this direction in 2010, but they've been hesitant to jump in with both feet as long as they felt they still had something to lose.

Our professional assessment of these options are, in order:  "Zzzzzzz",  "Hmm...maybe...",  "Shoot us now",  and "Duh!".  But, we'll also concede one critical point.  Whatever direction 19E chooses has to be made with the best interests of its franchise, and the majority of its viewers (and potential viewers) in mind.  No matter what changes they make, somebody is going to hate it and quit watching the show.  Many somebodies, in fact.  And, that group might very well include you...or us.

All snarkiness aside for a moment, we wish the producers the best of luck, courage, and wisdom as they chart their future course.  We'll be back next week with a wrapup of the season, plus some specific suggestions for changes in 2011.  Enjoy the Finale.

- The WNTS.com Team

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