Saturday, April 9, 2011

How I'd Fix American Idol

American Idol is the highest rated show on television, and has been pretty much since Season 2. Therefore, they have no reason to change anything. They can keep the show exactly how it is and consistently get their 20 million viewers.

But they could also improve the show. And unlike many hit shows, Idol has never been afraid to make changes. I'm looking at you, Brian Dunkleman.

In fact, this season has had perhaps the greatest overhaul of any. Gone are Kara DioGuardi, Ellen Degeneres and the show's first star, Simon Cowell, and in are Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The show's musical director has changed as Ricky Minor has taken most of his band over to The Tonight Show. They cut down the never ending semi-finals to one week, and added the mentoring of Jimmy Iovine. Theme weeks have been broadened to prevent the "country singer gets eliminated on disco night" effect.

Yet the show is, in almost all respects, the same. The singer has some introductory video, he/she sings, the judges comment- almost exclusively positive, with any negative remarks being loudly booed- the singer nods in agreement, Seacrest gives the phone numbers, and we go to commercial. Repeat as necessary. Justin Guarini did it that way, and so did Kellie Pickler and Sanjaya Malakar and Lil Rounds. That's how it goes.

And as well as that has worked, this week's elimination of Pia Toscano, an overwhelming frontrunner and one of the most talented singers the show has ever had, also showed some of the flaws with America's #1 show. And that, in turn, has allowed me to present my suggestions on how I would change American Idol:

1. Make the Judges Count- Outside of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and maybe Chris Daughtry, the biggest star Idol has created is Simon Cowell. And yet Cowell, along with the 6 others who have regularly sat on the Nigel Lythgoe appointed bench (in early seasons, there were guest judges to go with the theme weeks), are essentially powerless. Unlike their metaphor-spouting, panel-touting, ballroom-inclined cohorts on America's 2nd highest rated show, Idol judges have no actual say when the live shows begin. Bruno Tonioli may be less comprehensible than Paula Abdul, but while Abdul's "you look beautifuls" couldn't prevent Taylor Hicks from grabbing the Idol crown, a 6 versus a 9 from Tonioli can provide an actual difference between Kristi Yamaguchi and Cloris Leachman. But the judges are there for a reason. She might still be Jenny from the block, but J-Lo knows more about what it takes to be a music star than you or I. So does Steven Tyler. And Randy Jackson, well, he's been on the show for a while, so you'd figure he'd pick it up from osmosis somehow.

The Idol producers know this too. That's why they implemented the judges' save three years ago. But while Matt Giraud, Michael Lynche, and now Casey Abrams have been kept alive after receiving fewer votes than weaker competitors, this does not eliminate the underlying problem- America is voting for weaker competitors. You might say "well if America wants their idols to be Anoop Desai and Aaron Kelly, isn't that who would sell records?" To which I'd reply "yes, that's why Fantasia has an Oscar and Taylor Hicks is selling out stadiums while Jennifer Hudson has a VH1 reality show and Chris Daughtry is popping up on late night tv for cameos in renditions of YouTube hits." To which you would say "geez, you don't need to be sarcastic, I'm reading your blog post for goodness sake." To which I'd reply "you're right, I'm sorry, and thank you for reading."

So I'd completely revamp the judging. How? I wouldn't follow the DWTS 50% model, I'd limit the judges' say to 33%. And rather than giving each contestant scores from 1-10 (would anybody get below an 8?) I would have each judge rank each contestant at the end of the show. Then each contestant get points inversely proportionate to their ranking. The scores of the three judges would be combined, they would add up the total number of possible points, take a third of that, and that would count as the judges' percentage. Take last week for example:

There were 9 contestants remaining- Jacob, Haley, Casey, Lauren, James, Scotty, Pia, Stefano, and Paul. Let's say the judges ranked like this:


So the points would be:


James received 26 out of 27 possible points, and therefore gets 31.77 percent of the possible 33 percent, etc. But let's add a twist to this- up until the top 5 (the week where currently the save is no longer allowed, this would replace the save) the contestant with the highest judges' score cannot be eliminated. If you are the best singer for a given week, congratulations, you get a free pass. Your phone number won't even be activated, you do not face voting at all. After the top 5, the judges still get their say and their 33%, but even if you are the best, the fans still need to help.

2. Half Hour Results- They've done half hour results shows every once in a while, so it's certainly possible. Group song (4min), 1 of the bottom 3 (2min), commercial. Ford video (2min), performer (5min), 2nd of the bottom 3 (2min), commercial. Last of the bottom 3 (2min), performer (4min), elimination (3min). That's a 24 minute show. No need for a TMZ segment.

3. If they play instruments, let them play instruments- For the first few seasons, Idol contestants were never allowed to play instruments. A few years ago they lifted that. This year, they put a limitation on how many weeks contestants can use their instruments. I don't know why. Paul and Scotty are both significantly better when they play their guitar. This has no real application. Imagine if you went to an Elton John concert, but before it started Elton was told he could only play piano for 1/3 of the songs; who would want to see that?

4. Limit the Voting- Ryan Seacrest loves saying they set a new record for voting each week, and there will always be techies who know how to beat the system. But like DWTS, Idol should find a way to limit the votes per person- 5 per person per method (phone, text, online). This has been an issue since season 3, when Hawaii got Jasmine Trias to the top three much like China getting Yao Ming into the NBA All Star game starting lineup every year. She wasn't any good, but they just kept voting (aided by the long period of time the phone lines were open in Hawaii- opening when the east coast show ended and closing after the Hawaiian time zone show hours later). Since then the issue has been the teen girl constituency. Teen girls are some of Idol's most loyal viewers, and they vote for the boys they find cute. This has resulted in the lengthy Sanjaya reign and the current three year span of scruffy, guitar playing winners- David Cook, Kris Allen, and Lee Dewyze. Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg have both written about this, and while it is an issue, it is not one that can be solved. At least by limiting the votes per person, it can be partially equalized.

5. Change the Style- This is the biggest overhaul, and the one I could least see Idol making. Being a music star is not solely about doing 90 second covers- actually it's not about doing 90 second covers at all. So every couple weeks, why not do something different? A music video, an original song? They did duets a year or two ago for the final four, and that was great. But changing it up even just two or three times a season would be a nice change of pace for the viewers and better preparation for the contestants.

I'm sure if I kept thinking I could come up with more ideas (Do a theme week that's just original songs by former Idol contestants! Create a list of overdone songs (Don't Let the Son Go Down on Me and Against All Odds is a start) and ban them! Stop lying about the audition dates during broadcasts!) but this is a solid basis. What other changes would you make to American Idol?

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