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Shark Bites and Paper Cuts

Why Season Nine makes the case for rebooting America's most popular TV series

Well, it's over.  Now what?

It's been nearly a month since Season Nine ended and our annual season summary term paper was due.  And, as you can plainly see, we're still not entirely sure what to write about it.

Was the singing weak?  The semifinals weren't too hot, but things picked up once the Top 12 were selected.  In fact, nine of the eleven Finals episodes garnered an above-average approval rating, a record high for American Idol.

Were the contestants dreary?  Well, they weren't exactly larger-than-life personalities for sure.  Still, single mom Crystal Bowersox, new dad Michael Lynch, quirky Siobhan Magnus, and the always humble, always personable, and not always perfectly on-key winner Lee DeWyze were memorable enough.

Were there too many train wrecks?  Again, not really.  Fifteen one-star performances out of 149 (147 if the two duets are counted properly) is quite impressive by historical standards.  Besides, the most notorious of those bombs, young Paige Miles' disastrous take on Against All Odds, might have been a blessing in disguise.  It virtually ensures that no one will ever choose that overbaked song again on AI...not to mention it taught Idol's producers a valuable lesson about what can happen when they try to change theme horses in midstream.

Was the season as a whole engaging and enjoyable?  No.

Looking back on things, we'd say there was no one particular cause for the dive in both TV ratings and fan enthusiasm.  Rather, AI9 seemed to be the victim of the ancient Chinese practice of Ling T'che – the infamous Death by a Thousand Cuts.

Some of the cuts were self-inflicted: the natural hangover from the shenanigans of Season Eight, the insistence on staying with a four-judge panel, Simon's lame duck status, the relentlessly geriatric themes, and so on.  Some were natural consequences of being America's top-rated show for nine years running: sooner or later, everything gets old.  Some can be chalked up to bad luck or bad timing: the failure of several contestants to live up to their early promise, a compelling Winter Olympic Games that were broadcast live in prime time, etc.

And yeah, perhaps the fatal slash was from the knife of we viewers: the crushing results of the Top 16 Week voting.  As we pointed out in an earlier editorial, no season of AI could have fully overcome the loss of three strong contestants in one fell swoop.  Without a robust midcard to help carry us through March and early April, Season Nine hit an immediate headwind, and the unexpected, disappointing stumbles of Magnus and Andrew Garcia only added to the drag.  That left Bowersox's remarkable eight-week run of 5-star performances, plus the Curious Case of Timothy Urban, as the defining stories of the early season.  And that, quite honestly, wasn't near enough.

In the end, DeWyze emerged the victor.  Pitch problems aside, he improved significantly over the course of the season.  Trouble is, pitch problems are supposed to matter on AI, but the judges and producers (who are privy to the iTunes sales figures, remember) decided that some things are more important than tonal purity, to the annoyance of countless viewers.  In fairness, DeWyze's performances usually cleaned up nicely in the studio, and in today's Auto-Tuned era that might be all that matters.  Bowersox, with her throwback blues-rock style, should enjoy some mainstream success, as might third-place finisher Casey James.

(DeWyze, incidentally, didn't quite steal away the crown of the AI champion with the lowest average approval rating.  But then, we don't think he's going to steal away her sales records, either.)

So where does American Idol go from here?  We're sure that's a hot topic of discussion at the 19E offices these days.  Coming off a poorly-received season, with the franchise's star attraction exiting for greener, X-Factored pastures, things have never looked quite this bleak before.

This is the spot in the annual wrapup editorial where we offer up some good advice for next season...if we had any, that is.  Sad to say, other than reiterating the same commonsense suggestions that we make every June and which the producers ignore every January, we're at a loss for ideas.  No tweaks here and there will return Idol to its past glory.  In its current format, it's gone from a must-see, cutting edge phenomenon to a repetitive, predictable self-satire.  Celebrity judging panel, eager telegenic contestants, And Then There Were None-style elimination format, occasional guest stars...(*yawn*).  What's on ESPN, honey?

We can offer this heartfelt advice to viewers, however: if Season Ten begins in January with the usual montage of airplanes, limousines, hotel conference rooms, excited and oddly-dressed people standing in long lines, and a stadium full of auditioners screaming "I'm the Next American Idol!", turn off your TV and save yourself the aggravation.  That era of AI is completely played out.  A return to anything resembling business as usual in 2011 means one of two things.  Either the producers learned absolutely nothing from AI9.  Or, far more likely, they too are out of ideas and are simply hoping to squeeze a few more seasons of revenue out of their beloved golden goose, before the axe finally falls.

Today's Reality TV production houses are (somewhat understandably) reluctant to mess with the basic format of a hit series.  Perhaps they fear that a drastic, ill-received change will be forever ridiculed as their "Jump-the-Shark" moment.  We've never understood this philosophy at all.  How is death by shark bite any less painful or desirable then death by prolonged paper cuts?  We'd rather see American Idol go down swinging, as it were;  to burn out rather than fade away.

Hence, we say it's time for a complete and total reboot of the franchise.  Absolutely nothing – not even the judges, the host, the audition process, the voting system, or the elimination format – is off the table.  Build a new series from scratch.  Mission Statement: over a four month period, identify and crown the next great American pop superstar through a challenging but fair competition that is compelling, entertaining, contemporary, and occasionally exhilirating.

Godspeed, 19E.

- The WNTS.com Team

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