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Wish You Were Here

What if you could make only one change to save American Idol from itself?...

(The scene:  Having been made sick to their stomachs by the ongoing horror show that is Season Twelve, the WhatNotToSing.com staff decides to take the weekend off and head to warmer and sunnier climes.  For Senior Editor Brian, this means Edmonton, poor guy.  For Junior Editor Amy, well, she lives in Orlando these days, so to get any warmer and sunnier, she'd have to visit Mercury.  But, humoring us for the purposes of this editorial, she and Senior Editor Nick decide to head to the South Jersey shore for the weekend, even though it's been absolutely FREEZING in the Northeast this $%^&* spring so...aw, to hell with setting the scene.  We're on a beach, dammit.)

"Hey Amy, what's that shiny thing half-buried in the sand?"

"They're your reading glasses, Dad.  You can't see a thing without them.  Sheesh."

"No, I mean over there.  Looks like an old oil lamp.  Wow, it even has an American Idol logo engraved on the side!  I wonder what'll happen if we rub it..."

(Huge amounts of trite smoke and light burst from the lamp, along with a string section, a purple-clad choir....and a genie, of course, who speaks with a British accent and looks an awful lot like Simon Fuller.)

"Greetings, peons.  How may I serve you?"

"Wow, hi Mr. Full—...er, we mean Genie!  Let's cut straight to the chase.  We get three wishes, right?"

"No.  Two.  Actually, according to the current exchange rate, you only get 1.94, but I'm feeling generous today.  Make it snappy; I've got tickets to the Man U match in 45 minutes."

"OK.  Can we have one of your vacation homes?"

"No."

"How about a Bentley?"

"You lot are bloody morons," cried the Genie, throwing up his hands.  "The wishes can only pertain to American Idol.  Specifically, if you could make two and only two changes to fix the series, so that we're not getting our bums kicked in the TV ratings by the likes of Duck Dynasty, let alone The Voice, what would they be?"

(The WNTS team huddles and decides that, no matter what we do, we're not coming out of this with a Bentley.  So we decide to play it straight.)

"OK, we've got 'em.  Two changes that might pull AI out of the abyss, if that's sincerely what you want...and, which you haven't read a billion times already on the Internet.  Ready?"

"Fire away, mates."

"Wish number one:  Remove Randy Jackson from the live judges' panel, but keep him on the show for continuity's sake.  Let him act as a mentor and give his taped critiques on the results show, the way Jimmy Iovine does now.  Every season it's the same thing: in the pre-recorded episodes in Hollywood and Vegas, he comes off as low-key, intelligent, insightful, and downright useful.  On live TV, he comes off as a complete tool.  Even after twelve years, he hasn't learned how to organize his thoughts in the heat of the moment, which is why he falls back on all those tiresome catchphrases like 'He's in it to win it!' or 'The competition starts now!'  All joking aside, the guy is a hugely successful record producer and manager.  Those are industry professions that require contemplation rather than quick-reaction.  Stop making him do a job he's simply not programmed to do."

"Easy enough, mates.  Consider it done.  What's your second wish?"

"This one is way more important.  In fact, if you only make one change this summer, this ought to be it.  You can keep the format, keep the stale music, keep the pimp pieces and the broken voting system, keep Fremantle and Nigel Lythgoe and Randy Jackson and Nicki Minaj and even Mariah Carey.  They're all on the spectrum between awful and unwatchable, but if you make this one change, then over time all the other problems will slowly fix themselves."

"And that is?"

"Change the prize for winning.  No more 'million-dollar recording contract'.  Instead, it's a million dollars – period."

"Bloody hell!  What difference can that possibly make, you twits?"

"Simple.  It will remove the core reason why seasons like this one become unwatchable in the first place."

Dark Magic

"Look, Mr. Fuller.  American Idol, as we've pointed out several times before, has one big, massive, 800-pound gorilla of an original sin:  The people who are responsible for running a fair competition are also the ones who stand to profit the most from the eventual outcome...provided the 'right' person wins, that is.  First prize is more than just the record deal.  It's also ongoing representation by 19 Entertainment and CKX and XIX and the whole alphabet soup of entertainment companies that you run.  And, that's the problem.

"You want a winner who's commercial.  Who's marketable.  Who'll bring you enough money in royalties and residuals such that every time your local Bentley dealer receives a new shipment, they give you a courtesy call.  That's where the loot is, and you know it.

"The best thing that ever happened to Idol was Kelly Clarkson.  But guess what?  Clarkson was the worst thing to happen to it, too.  Her success, her sales, her critical acclaim, her revenue has made you and your cohorts greedy for more.  (Believe it or not, we use that term respectfully; it would have likely happened to anyone in your shoes.)  In the process, unfortunately, you've completely lost sight of what made AI arguably the biggest hit in the history of American television.  That's the week-to-week singing competition itself.

"Let's name names this time.  It's obvious to anyone watching the show that you desperately want Amber Holcomb to win, or at least to make it to the Finale.  We can see why.  She's young, she's stunning, and she has a singing voice and a pair of legs that you rarely see attached to the same body.  You believe that she can thrive in the market for female R&B singers which dominate the Billboard charts these days, like Beyonce and Rihanna.  Hell, we bet you already plan to bill her as simply 'Amber', don't you?"

(The Genie didn't reply, but we could see from his facial expression that we'd scored a direct hit.)

"Trouble is, Holcomb has a natural competitor left in the competition in Candice Glover.  Now, again let's be 100% frank: Glover is nowhere near as marketable.  She's very average looking, comes off as much older than 23, and is on the "plus-size" side to boot.  Plus, she has a sincerely sweet and humble personality that's diametrically opposed to the Diva Egos who make the supermarket magazine covers, to the point where she even thanks the judges after critical reviews!  She's never going to make headlines by dating some misogynist rapper or driving her Bentley into a tree.  It's Melinda Doolittle all over again.

"Unfortunately for you, Glover also happens to be mopping the floor with Holcomb, and pretty much everyone else, this season.  She has the four highest-rated performances of the season, and she's even tied with Kree Harrison for #5.  Even after her worst week by far, she still has a perfect game going (including three duets, which is mind-boggling), and she currently stands in sixth place among all finalists.  Musically, she's brilliantly clever with her arrangements, like so many winners before her.  She might not be marketable, but as a competitor, she's formidable.  That's what matters to the voters, most of whom treat the show for what it is: a high-stakes but ultimately unimportant-in-the-grand-scheme singing competition.

"If Holcomb wins, you get to market her as an American Idol Champion™, and the revenue stream is just beginning.  If Glover wins, however, you have problems.  She'll sell a few records just like Doolittle has done, and she'll have a nice, comfortable career in the music industry for as long as she wishes.  But, she's an old-school singer.  She will never, ever be a superstar here in the 2010s.  She'll never make you rich.  And, once again, you know it.

The Ol' Hocus-Pocus

"That's why you 'asked' the judges to reveal who 'their' Top 3's were a few weeks ago.  You made sure that all four of them put Holcomb in their lists but three of four, incredibly and inexplicably, left Glover out.  Just a little nudge to America there, but they obviously didn't get the hint.  Neither did Glover, apparently, because the following week she went out and delivered two 5-star performances, including the highest-rated one in our database.  Evah.

"That's why the praise for Holcomb's performances have gotten more effusive and more mystifying as the weeks go by.  Did you know that, at least as our web approval ratings are concerned, her solo performances from the past three weeks are actually a fraction of a point below 50?  Remember, that's calculated from the same sources that had her in the high-60's for the first month and a half of the competition.  She's stagnated, and all of America has seen it, and there's nothing really wrong with it – it's happened to plenty of good contestants before.  But you can't allow the judges to acknowledge it.  It doesn't fit your narrative.

"That's why, just this past Wednesday, your series delivered the spectacle that, we suspect, future TV historians will point to as the precise moment that American Idol jumped the shark.  During a hugely promising One-Hit Wonder theme segment, your allegedly impartial and expert judging panel gave three standing ovations to a cover of MacArthur Park.

"Let's say that again: will literally hundreds of brilliant one-hit wonder songs to choose from, your judges gave three standing ovations to an 18-year-old girl singing "MacArthur Park".

"One more time, Mr. Fuller, because you and your staff need this reality rammed repeatedly into your skulls, with your eyeballs propped open with toothpicks and your heads in a vise, a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange:  your judges gave three standing ovations to "Macarthur Freaking Park."  This is simply not done in civilized countries.

"Holcomb's performance wound up with an approval rating of 26.  It's a testament to how beautifully she sang it that it wound up even that high.  The judges' initial fawning reaction was embarrassing enough.  But then, when even Jimmy Iovine (who wants Holcomb in his recording studio desperately) couldn't remain silent, and he delivered his emperor-has-no-clothes moment, the Fearsome Foursome brought him on stage to rip him for having the audacity to say out loud what most of your viewers were thinking: the song choice was simply abysmal.

"That sequence triggered an explosion of rage across the Idolsphere that we've never seen before.  Evah.  We've tallied ratings for this show based on contemporary reviews all the way back to Season Two.  We've seen its viewers angry before, but this was an order of magnitude beyond anything that came before it.  At TVLine.com, Michael Slezak nearly had the world's first Internet stroke.  Over at Entertainment Weekly, an exasperated Annie Barrett actually began keeping a running tally of the judges' "lies".  Don't even go near The Idol Guy this week unless you're in an asbestos-lined Bentley.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Three standing ovations for "MacArthur Park" will do that to people.

"The next night, your results show was the lowest-rated in series history according to Nielsen (2.8/9).  Several million more people watched the finale of Duck Dynasty, and you wound up tied for fourth place on the night with something called Scandal, whatever that is.  That's only a little less humiliating than getting walloped by a pair of reruns of The Big Bang Theory, which you've also managed to accomplish this season...except that was on a competition night!

"Now let's make two things clear.  One, Holcomb deserves none of the blame for this.  She's basically a high school kid who entered a big talent show.  Two, even if your A&R people are correct and Holcomb does go on to superstardom along the lines of Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, it won't allow you to save face this time.  You crossed the Rubicon last Wednesday.  You've got to understand, only you and your industry friends believe that the 'winner' of American Idol is the one who sells the most records afterwards.  The shrinking millions of people who tune in weekly believe that the 'winner' is the person who plays this glorified game of musical chairs the most effectively over a four-month period.  Do you understand what we're getting at?"

You Ain't Never Had A Friend Like Me

(The Genie, who'd been listening quietly all this time, let out a long sigh.)

"Look, I don't know if I agree with everything you said, but I do get it:  we've pissed a lot of people off this year.  We'll work on that this summer.  But how is changing the prize going to make things right?"

"It's not the prize per se.  The key is to get 19E, CFX, Interscope Records, and everyone else in the incestuous Idol machine disinterested and disinvested in the outcome of the competition.  You can do that simply by writing a check.  Whoever wins gets a million bucks.  Second place gets maybe a half-million, third gets $250K, and so on down the line.  You still get to keep most of the money you make from the TV show, plus you get to sell tickets and t-shirts for the summer tour.  But, once the tour is over, that's it.  You don't get to represent the contestants for all eternity.  Maybe you get some sort of flat fee from whoever ultimately signs them.  That way, it makes not a whit of difference whether your chosen one finishes first, fourth, or forty-second.  You pocket the same amount of money either way.

"In fact, if anything, you might even have motivation to sandbag your favorite contestants a bit rather than pimp them to death.  If nobody signs them after, say, six months from the end of the tour, then 19E can exercise an option to bring them on board.  But, that's beside the point.  What a cash prize guarantees is that you have no incentive to manipulate the competition to the point of absurdity, or to hire judges who'll blindly do your bidding.  THAT'S why the whole Winner Gets A Record Contract And Signs Away Their Soul To 19E ecosystem has to be evacuated, cordoned off, and blown to smithereens."

The Genie shook his head.  "That'd cost me a lot of money, mates."

"You've made enough money on this show, mate.  And, you can still make a lot more.  But, you're not going to make anything if people continue to change the channel in droves.  You might as well salvage what you can.

"Here's a thought.  Next year, instead of four superstars, why not have four rival record producers and entertainment executives as your judges?  Let them critique the singers the way Jimmy does now.  You can have some sort of a parallel competition whereby they choose each week how they think America will vote, then they're scored on the actual results.  At the end of the Finale, after the winner gets his oversized check for $1M, the four judges get to 'draft' one finalist apiece for their respective labels.  The winner of the judges' competition gets the first choice.  This year, maybe fourth-place Amber is the first pick.

"In this scenario, you have no motivation whatsoever to run pimp pieces, nor to put through to the voting rounds anyone who has a sob story.  You only want the 24 strongest singers, across a variety of genres.  The last thing you need is a Lazaro Arbos knocking out contestants whom your judges – who are now your customers rather than your employees – want to hear more of.  And, the judges aren't going to be giving standing ovations to the likes of "MacArthur Park", either.  They've got to grade the contestant based upon how they think the voters will see it, because that valuable first-round draft pick is on the line.  If they all want Holcomb for their label, you had better believe they're going to tell her, 'Dear, you're still terrific, but that song choice reeked to high heaven.'  That's all America is begging for – honesty and relevance."

"Look, Mr. Fuller.  About a month ago, we unloaded on you and your series with both barrels.  Here's why.  Like many other longtime fans, we sense that American Idol is dying.  And, it's not a graceful death, either – it's a horrible, drawn-out, demenia-filled demise.  We viewers are all going through the Five Stages Of Grief right now.  Some are still in Denial, the first phase.  This week, millions reached Anger; our staff just happen to have gotten there a few weeks ahead of the pelaton.  Bargaining is next ("Maybe we can save our website if we switch to covering The Voice"), then Depression, finally Acceptance.  Right now, the three of us are hovering somewhere between stages three and four.

"We think this sinking ship of a show can still be saved, but it's going to take massive, fundamental, earth-shaking changes on your part.  Yes, replacing the judges and the executive producers are necessary, but they're still lightyears from being sufficient.  Only getting 19E out of the results equation can turn the tide.  You have to give up the sole-representation clause in the contestants' contracts, plus eliminate ANY conflict of interest in who actually wins.

"If you don't, then before long we're going to be back in the same boat.  Another raw but hugely promising potential superstar is going to come along – an Amber Holcomb, a Chris Daughtry, a David Archuleta, an Adam Lambert.  You and your partners are going to see dollar signs, pound signs, euro signs, yen signs, and every other currency sign in the whole damn Unicode set flash before your eyes.  This...Person...Must...Win, you'll chant in rapture to yourselves.  You won't be able to stand the thought of them going home before the Finale.  And when it looks like they're in trouble, you'll do anything to save them.  Like order your judges to give them standing ovations after every performance...even 26-rated ones.

"That's the original sin of American Idol, that's the true source of all its ills, and that's what has to be ripped out by its roots and thrown into the trash can...uh, that's the 'dustbin' to you, Mr. Fuller...if you're going to save this once-legendary TV series.  There's simply no other way."

- The WNTS.com Team

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