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Lucky 13

Season 13 will be very different for American Idol...and for WNTS

Late November has arrived here in the Northeast, and as in autumns prior, with it comes chilly nights, falling leaves, and emails from loyal WNTS readers asking, "Are you guys going to be back for season N, considering that the outrages and annoyances from season N-minus-1 nearly gave you a stroke?"

For once, we're ready with an early answer.  Two answers, in fact, because we have good news and bad news to share.

First: Yes, WhatNotToSing.com will be back covering American Idol in 2014.  We'll pause briefly to allow the wag in the back row to shout, "OK, so what's the good news?"  There.

Quite a lot went into this decision.  Needless to say, Season 12 sucked a lot of joy out of us.  (Memo to the guy in the back row: yeah, we realize we could have ended that last sentence seven words sooner.)  Plus, let's be frank, it did irreparable damage to the franchise.  If it wasn't clear last May when Candice Glover and Kree Harrison put on a superb, record-breaking Finale that hardly anyone watched, it certainly is now.  The 2013 live tour earned refreshingly good reviews but predictably godawful ticket sales -- where attendance figures are available, the year-over-year drop looks to be in the range of 60% to 70%.  Audition turnout this summer was down sharply in most cities.  Ratings for AI's primary competitor, The Voice, remain strong, while those of other singing competitions continue to drop (or, in the case of Simon Cowell's seemingly doomed The X-Factor, to plummet.)

So why in the world, in the midst of this Debbie Downer monologue, are we coming back?  Three reasons.

One, the franchise is making a sincere attempt to rebuild itself.  Gone is the entire stable of executive producers responsible for the Season Twelve fiasco.  Gone too are three-quarters of the judging panel, with amiable Keith Urban the only holdover -- he didn't have a great rookie year, to say the least, but he was decent enough to warrant one more look.  Randy Jackson, whose streak of sustained awfulness on live American TV is rivaled only by Brent Musberger, moves from the judging panel to the mentoring chair.  Considering that our respect for Jackson as a talent evaluator and producer is only rivaled by our disdain for his real-time judging skills, we think this has the potential to be the biggest anti-Peter Principle leap since baseball's Bob Uecker went from catcher to announcer.  Add Harry Connick Jr., who was astonishingly impressive in his one-week tryout last spring, and the return of Jennifer Lopez, who was instrumental in assembling the sublime casts of Seasons Ten and Eleven (even if her live judging skills make the Dawg seem like Voltaire), and there is potential here.  Much potential.

But, the massive rebuilding project is not the main reason we're coming back.

Two, as everyone knows by now, American Idol runs in three-year cycles, which our friend The Idol Guy dubbed epochs.  The first two years of an epoch tend to be strong; the third, um, doesn't.  History suggests that AI will bounce back strong next year, even if it seems that this particular low is 'unbounceable', to coin a phrase.

But, curiosity as to what the Fifth Epoch will bring isn't the main reason we're coming back, either.

The third reason in fact is the primary one.  After all the time and emotion and energy we've invested in American Idol over the years, we just can't stand the thought of ending WNTS on such a trainwreck of a season.  We want our final memory of AI to be something a little more positive.  Seriously, that's it in a nutshell.

So what about that bad news we mentioned?  We're going to make one major change to the WNTS approval ratings policy in 2014, in deference to the new reality on the ground.  We can't pretend any longer that our ratings are anywhere near as precise as they used to be.

In 2007, using some back-of-the-envelope Bayesian math from Statistics 101, we determined that the 95% confidence range of a WNTS approval rating (using a mean of 50 and an average standard deviation of 17) was plus or minus three points.

Today, however, when we are scrounging every week to find 100 reviews of the most recent show on the web (whereas we once had absolutely no trouble surpassing 300), that plus/minus range has increased.  By a lot.  Combine that with the fact that we have little choice except to go back to the same dozen or so "big" AI sites week in and week out, and to take all of the reviews we find rather than using every second or third, not to mention the fact that well over half our "rated" ballots now come from our volunteer 'Review Crew'...um, yeah.  Let's face it, we aren't "sampling" any longer.  We're compiling the same people's opinions every week, because there's no other option.

Well, if that's how it has to be, okay.  But we're not going to try to keep a straight face and claim that a 63 means "America's opinion was somewhere in the low sixties" any longer.  Not when the truth is that it now means, "somewhere between maybe 55 and 70, very likely closer to the midpoint than the extremes, but your guess is as good as ours."

So...at least for Season 13, WNTS ratings will look very different, if they exist at all.  Right now we're leaning towards rounding them to the nearest five points.  If we go this route, we'll make the ones digit either '2' or '7', to try to maintain some continuity in the star strata.

Furthermore, we're going to cut down on the many hours we spend doing post-results show polling, because to be perfectly honest the 'final' numbers aren't significantly more precise compared to the 'overnight' numbers to warrant spending half our weekends on Google.

If American Idol rises from the ashes and recaptures a significant chunk of its lost audience, we'll revisit this policy.  If a performance challenges the all-time record high (Glover's Lovesong, at 96) or record low (a 2, and we don't want to be reminded of them), maybe we'll make an exception.  If a "perfect game" is on the line, ditto.  In any case, we'll continue to log the contestants, artists, songs, performances and other essential facts about AI13, so as to keep a historically complete database.

That's it for now -- have a great holiday season, and we'll see you when the calendar turns over and Idol, we hope, turns itself around.

- The WNTS.com Team

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