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Relax, Folks. The Apocalypse is Not Upon Us

AI7's tweaks lead to a strong opening week (really!), but one change has got to go.

So after all the format changes, focus on talent, and endless hype, how did The New And Improved American Idol 2.0 fare in its opening week?  According to many disappointed bloggers and forumists, not so well.  Those had to be the worst pair of opening-week episodes in Idol history, they write.  The show has jumped enough sharks to stock the National Aquarium, and all is lost, alas, all is lost.

Oh, really?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but let's look at the hard numbers.  The Top 24 Guys' ratings are all but complete, and while we're still tallying outlying websites for the Girls, we don't expect their current numbers to change much.  At present, Season Seven's 24 semifinalists posted a collective 48.3 approval rating for their opening night performances.

But the average rating is 50, you shout?  True, but that's for all performances, both semifinals and finals.  It should come as no surprise that opening week numbers are usually low.  Lack of audience familiarity with the contestants, first-night jitters, and flat-out blunders by the judges during the Hollywood selection process all play a part in that.

An apples-to-apples comparison is between the debut performances of the 24 AI7 contestants and those of other seasons.  We made a quick trip into our database, and here's how they fared:

Opening-Round Ratings, By Season
Season Rating Rank
AI1 39.4 7
AI2 45.5 5
AI3 44.5 6
AI4 47.4 3
AI5 47.7 2
AI6 45.8 4
AI7 48.3 1

Seasons One through Three had 30 or more semifinalists instead of 24, so one might expect the ratings in those years to be a little lower to reflect the diluted talent.  Still, despite all the hand-wringing around the Idolsphere, the fact remains that the Season Seven crew posted the best opening-round numbers of any season.  They thumped last year's group by two-and-a-half points, even though LaKisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle posted monster numbers.

So why all the doom and gloom?  We believe the producers over-set expectations with their drumbeat that this was The Most Talented Top 24 Ever™.  Many fans seem to have tuned in expecting to hear 24 All By Myself's, and when that impossibility didn't materialize, a backlash ensued.

Perhaps the lack of showstoppers this week is a cause for concern, or perhaps not.  Keep in mind that half the girls were sick, and half the guys appeared terrified.  Besides, there have only been two debut performances that reached the 90s in all of AI history.  (In addition to Latoya London's legendary AI3 masterpiece at 94, Jones scored 90 on the button with And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going last year.  It's far too early to draw firm conclusions, but so far it seems that the producers' many tweaks and innovations are working out.

Except for one.  We join the deafening chorus of Idolsphere fans calling on the producers to dump, tout de suite, the show's most awful idea in years: semifinal theme weeks.  Nigel Lythgoe said the goal was to produce a level playing field, because many contestants in past seasons were forced to make last-minute song changes when Idol couldn't get copyright clearance for their first choices.  Thus, the Top 24 was given a list of 50 songs from the 1960s which had been pre-cleared for airplay.

If that explanation is on the level, then we respectfully suggest that this is a very dumb solution to a non-problem.  Themeless early rounds are essential; they allow the contestants to make the best possible first impression on America.  Better would be for the producers to use their many record industry connections to obtain performance rights to more songs, even if it means paying premium fees.  (Clive Davis talked the famously Idol-averse Bruce Springsteen into clearing Dancing In The Dark a few years back, so we know it can be done.)  As a backup, advancers out of Hollywood should be given a list of every song to which Idol has clearance, which must number in the many hundreds by now, so they have time to prepare for a switch if need be.  So far, 557 different songs have been performed in the main competition.

As all of this seems like basic common sense, we have to express some uneasy suspicions about the producers' true motives.  At the very least, they should release the list of the 50 songs so that fans can see what was and was not on the list.  Judging by the 22 that made it on the air (two were done twice), pickings were unusually slim.  Most of the songs were ones we've heard performed before, and others we had hoped we'd never have to hear (though Robbie Carrico, Jason Castro, and Amanda Overmyer deserve credit for plucking roses from among the thorns.)

American Idol is already suffering another overblown but self-inflicted controversy in the media owing to their lack of forthcomingness about some of the contestants' professional backgrounds.  Sooner or later, even these congenitally secretive British TV producers have to figure out that a little transparency in American culture goes a long way.

- The WNTS.com Team

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