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Future Shock

There's no time like the present to turn back time...

Well, it's over.  Now what?

Longtime WNTS readers might recognize the above as the opening paragraph of our scathing recap of Season Nine.  We figured it would be appropriate to dust it off once more here in the wake of Season Twelve.  The similarities between the two are amazing, after all.

If you accept The Idol Guy's hypothesis that American Idol runs in three year epochs, as we do, then both seasons marked the end of an era.  Their errors were apparent right out of the gate.  Both seasons took weeks of tedious exposition just to get rolling, in contrast to competing talent shows that had viewers and voters engaged from the start.  Both were weighted down by too many not-ready-for-prime-time finalists, the result of the producers having miscalculated and mis-pimped...ahem, again...during the pre-competition episodes.  Both featured judges with one foot out the door and the other, more often than not, in their mouth.  Both featured sleepy themes, stale music, and painfully unimaginative song choices, as if the prior eleven seasons had taught Nigel Lythgoe and friends nothing.  Not coincidentally, both were hammered in the ratings – both here at WhatNotToSing.com and, far more ominously for 19E, over at Neilsen.com as well.

The truly sad part is that this was completely avoidable.  Season Twelve, like Season Nine before it, was the follow-up to a year that was flawed but entertaining.  AI8 started poorly but finished with a bang.  AI11 had an okay start and finish but a spectacular middle.  To the producers, it must have seemed as if all that was needed was a little tweak here and there to keep the franchise humming along.  There were ample clues to the contrary, of course, but in both cases they went unheeded and unaddressed at Idol HQ until it was much too late.  Now all that's left is for we analysts to pick over its remains and analyze the causes of death.  Plural.

Time Out Of Mind

Season Twelve was a trainwreck despite no shortage of capable contestants.  Reggie Dwight's raw vocal prowess was remarkable, Paul Hewson was quirky but imaginative, and Eileen Edwards' incredible streak of 5-star performances was topped only by her counterpart from AI9, Crystal Bowersox.  Midcard singers like Calvin Broadus and Ellen Cohen had their ups and downs but on the whole they were assets rather than liabilities.  In the end, it was another so-called WGWG who won, Robert Zimmerman, and if he was vocally nowhere near the league of his competitors (and he wasn't), there was definitely something about his ability to phrase a song that caught the voters' attention.  If he can pen some decent songs for himself, he might even sell a few albums.

But the undercard this year, just as in Season Nine, was unspeakably weak.  The first month of the Finals was spent weeding out contestants who had no business being on the big stage in the first place.  The judges did reasonably well with their Wild Card picks, saving Cohen, Hewson, and Alecia Moore from undeserved elimination, but they couldn't do anything about the mediocre singers who were voted through by America on the strength of their heart-tugging pimp pieces.

Wouldn't March have seemed less of a drag if Marvin Aday and Brenda Tarpley were given more than one opportunity to sing?  If you agree, then blame the one-week semifinals format, introduced in AI10 at the dawn of the Fourth Epoch.  There's no question that it's added a sense of urgency and sudden-death drama to the early proceedings, and that's a plus.  Don't get us wrong:  the old three-week Semis could drag on for what felt like forever.  Unfortunately, the pendulum seems to have swung too far with the accelerated format, which bears two huge flaws.

  • One, it doesn't allow slow-blooming and unpimped contestants, who might be an acquired taste to America, enough of an opportunity to turn heads.
  • Two, it allows weak but heavily promoted contestants to skate through their one (1) semifinal performance before enough viewers can realize, "Ruh-roh, this kid's just not ready to sing live."

In AI10 and AI11, this ticking time bomb luckily didn't blow up.  Sooner or later you knew it would, and in AI12, it finally did.

The Song Remains The Same

Came the Finals and another familiar explosive went ka-boom:  the music.  Did we really need to hear And I'm Telling You... and Superstition for a seventh time?  All By Myself, I Can't Make You Love Me, and Saving All My Love For You for a sixth?  Many American Idol analysts believed that when executive producer Simon Fuller assigned I Have Nothing to Jessica Sanchez in the AI11 Finale, he couldn't possibly be more comically tone-deaf to his audience's wishes.  What does it say then that this year he gave Edwards Against All Odds and Zimmerman Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me?!

Two numbers in this department tell the story of Season Twelve.

  • The Freshness Factor – the percentage of songs new to American Idol in 2013 – was a dismal 47.5%.  That's second-worst of all time and three points lower than AI11, the previous holder of that mark (50.6%).  Only AI8 (44.9%) trails the past two seasons.
  • The Repeat Factor – the average number of times an Idol song has been previously performed in competition – was a whopping 1.44.  That is, pardon the pun, gross...but it was hardly unforeseeable.  A big red warning flag was raised last year when AI11, at 1.20, became the first season to break through the dreaded 1.0 Barrier.

(Incidentally, the average song age in Season Twelve was 24.3 years.  Historically, that's very good – the second-youngest ever, a quarter-year below Season Eleven and a bit over a year behind the bellwether, Season Two at 23.0.  But only in the context of American Idol can this be considered something to brag about.  As our colleague and collaborator Ken Barnes has shown, competitors like The Voice feature music on average a decade younger than AI's typical fare, which even in 2013 still dates from the Reagan Administration for crying out loud!)

One thing we've noticed over the years is that if the music in the early episodes is staid and recycled, it will rarely get any fresher as the months progress.  Occasionally a contestant will successfully get a new song cleared in mid-season, but more often they're forced to fall back on the show's stodgy pre-cleared list.  Therein lies the problem.  The time for 19E to put an all-out blitz on licensing efforts is in the summer and fall, not in April and May.  Don't wait until the contestants ask for a specific song – spend some cash to obtain open-ended licensing options from the major music publishers and labels, including indie ones.  Had 19E done so in the latter half of 2012, then perhaps these first months of 2013 wouldn't have been such a fiasco.

Drift Away

If the sorry state of Idol music has been a perennial problem, so too has the sorry state of the judging panel.  In an early editorial last season, we gave Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler grudging but sincere credit for doing their most important job exceptionally well: choosing a strong Top 24.  Despite a few spectacular misfires this year – hey, nobody's perfect – they once again deserve kudos overall.

However, the rest of their game has been horrendous for three years running.  Just as with the stale music and the quickie semifinal format, this timer finally ticked down to zero in Season Twelve.

We're aren't sure where to begin, to be honest.  The incessant standing ovations have gone from humorous to irritating to downright embarrassing.  By our count, the world's easiest-to-please trio stood and applauded for six performances that failed to rate above 50 by web reviewers – astoundingly, that's twice as many as last year!

But their obsequious behavior makes for much worse than just unwatchable TV.  As The Idol Guy hypothesized in his Season Eleven post-mortem, the judges' uniformly gushing reviews and the lack of anything resembling constructive criticism have caused the contestants of the Fourth Epoch to stagnate in their musical development.  Ken Barnes similarly observes that were it not for Jimmy Iovine's brief mentoring sessions each week, they'd be left totally adrift.

Want proof?  Take a look at the line chart we produced last year for the essay Define Best.  Observe how the "cast ratings" of Seasons Ten and Eleven both reached unprecedented heights by midseason, then drifted into middle-of-the-pack blandness towards the end.  Season Twelve didn't quite follow in their lofty early footsteps because of the weak undercard, but they certainly followed in their late ones: cast ratings in the final month fell to near-record lows.  Without risk, there is no reward, and why on earth should an Idol contestant ever take a risk when they're guaranteed high praise simply for staying in their assigned swim lane?

In hindsight, the producers made a huge mistake bringing back a reluctant Lopez at all costs for 2013.  J-Lo did what she was hired to do three years ago.  She provided a nurturing, mostly sensible voice at the front table without the baggage and oversized ego of some of her predecessors.  She and Tyler should have been considered transition judges from the get-go, to stabilize the franchize after the disaster of Season Nine and then to move on with a hearty Thank-You after this task had been accomplished.  It seems certain that she and Tyler will not return for Season Thirteen – if there is one – but it's a year too late.  Now a new set of transitional judges are needed for restabilzation...rinse, repeat.  This was an issue that could and should have been addressed after AI11, not AI12.

Two Heads Are (Sometimes Not) Better Than One

Once we get past the Unholy Triumvirate of Mis-Pimping, Recycled Music, and Ineffective Game-Day Judges, all of the other ills that beset Season Twelve sort of pale in comparison.  Still, we'd be remiss if we didn't touch on them.

First:  duets (and, ye gods, trios).  Once upon a time, we actually looked forward to the annual duets episode as a pleasant change of pace.  Now that they're near-weekly features, they're torture.  We'd love to have access to the minute-by-minute Neilsen ratings to see how many viewers in a given night changed their channels when Ryan announced that a duet was on deck, and then never tuned back in.

We sort of understand why duets proliferated in Season Eleven.  The producers were instructed to fill a two-hour time slot each week regardless of how many contestants remained.  Group performances were the path of least resistance.  Well, okay.  But are you telling us that after more than eight months to think about it, they still couldn't dream up anything better?  Look, we're Idol fans.  We can (and do) put up with all sorts of stupid.  But, we can't forgive lazy.

Take the Final Four show, for example.  For the second straight year, it consisted of eight solo performances, two duets, and one totally ridiculous (and, by merciful decree of the exasperated WNTS Steering Committee, unrated) quartet.  Well, geez, how else could they fill 120 minutes?  Simply having twelve solo performances was unthinkable, of course – never in Idol history has the Final Four been forced to choose, learn and rehearse three new songs in one week!  Much better to do it as the producers actually did, because that way the contestants only had to learn...um, four new songs.  </sarcasm>

Twelve of the 15 duets/trios in Season Twelve rated out below 50, and a 13th – Broadus and Declan MacManus's Sympathy For The Devil, hope you guess their names – barely squeaked over at 51.  The producers claim that they couldn't have anticipated this degree of audience fatigue?  Rubbish.  All they had to do was observe the ominous trend from Season Eleven.  Four of the first five "multis" last year rated above average...and then the final six all fell below 50!  (In fact, only one of the final five even managed to crack 40.)  Chalk this up as another self-inflicted wound for 19E.

Second:  the voting system.  It's broken.  It's been broken since AI1.  Everyone with a room-temperature IQ knows precisely why it's broken and how to fix it.  Nevertheless, it seems fated to remain broken forever.  We won't spend too much time beating this bleached-boned skeleton of what was once a horse except to say that if the producers simply had voters rate all the performances in addition to choosing one favorite, and use the resulting grades as a factor in deciding who goes home the next night, then they could keep their precious Unlimited Vote system.  But they won't.  So let's move on.

Third:  the Audition, Hollywood, and Las Vegas episodes.  Both individually and as a whole, they are way past their expiration dates.  This is where the producers need to be bold, because no amount of tweaking or faux drama can save this format.  It needs a clean sweep.

The clearest path to understanding how much the first month of the season is harming the franchise can be seen in the TV ratings, which you can find at Wikipedia.  These peaked during Seasons Five and Six and have been on a downward slide ever since.  But, observe that the extent of the decline each year is almost exactly that of the year-over-year viewership of the premiere episode!

The big problem with American Idol, in other words, isn't that fans tune out by the busload in midseason (although this is an issue in years when WNTS ratings are down, such as Seasons Six, Nine and Twelve.)  It's that they make a conscious decision not to return the following January.  Well, can you blame them when they know they will be forced to sit through as many as six weeks and fifteen hours of taped expository episodes before the action really begins?  That is one hell of an investment for a TV show to ask its viewers to make.

To the producers' credit, the Idol franchise all about being a true, grass-roots singing competition.  Its hallmark is that it documents the contestants' journey from their initial callback audition, through their trials in Hollywood and Vegas, and directly into the live shows.  However, let's be frank: the market for documentaries has crashed.  Competing series like The Voice have recognized this, thus they "go live" quicker and engage the viewers far sooner than does AI.

In short, the marketing campaign for Season Thirteen had better be along the lines of: "This year, you help pick the quarterfinalists and semifinalists!"  Anything else is simply not going to work.

Through all the travails and irritations of Season Twelve, there were still plenty of bright spots.  Ryan Seacrest did another fine job as host – after nearly a decade of being a drag on the show, he's now one of its most reliable assets.  The house band, led by Ray Chew, remains a solid, underappreciated supporting crew, and several of its soloists (particularly saxophonist Mindi Abair) were integral players in some of the season's best moments.  Nigel Lythgoe, with help from his production and staging crews, runs a tight and crisply-paced ship on competition nights.  One year after AI11's outstanding Final Seven turned heads, AI12 went one better: its Final Eight were all terrific.  (We know it's probably sacrilege to ask this, but...when a season reaches critical mass like that, is it really necessary to send someone home every week?)

And yet, Season Twelve was a failure.  Of that, we fans of the show are in near-unanimous agreement.  American Idol seems genetically incapable of putting together three straight strong seasons.  That's because its keepers are reactionaries, not visionaries.  When things are going well, they're completely blind to the most obvious signs of impending danger.  They don't recognize when something is about to break, or when it's already broken for that matter.  They wait for it to completely disintegrate and bring the rest of the building down with it.

This is why Idol runs in three-year epochs, and why the third year is invariably disastrous, and why the franchise is facing yet another existential crisis as in 2007 and 2010.  We don't know what Season Thirteen will look like, or whether there will be a thirteenth season at all.  No doubt the producers wish they could turn back the clock to last year, just after the conclusion of the reasonably successful and enjoyable Season Eleven.  Knowing what they do now, they could act proactively to correct all of these problems – to freshen up the music, overhaul the judging panel, fix the semifinal format and voting system, and generally avoid all the avoidable horrors of Season Twelve.  (*Sigh*)...If it were only May of 2012 again....

Oh, wait.  It is.


With a tip of the cap to the many immortal musical artists whose real names we borrowed for this little flight of fancy.  How many did you recognize?

- The WNTS.com Team

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