Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sepinwall on TV: How to polish a tarnished 'Idol'

Today's column previews the new season of "American Idol" and offers some suggestions for how it can rebound from the mostly-forgettable season six:
Hit TV shows become big, ungainly ocean liners after a while. There may be troubled waters ahead, but they can't see them until it's far too late to steer around. So give some credit to the producers of "American Idol" for recognizing a major problem with their franchise and course-correcting at the earliest possible moment.

In an industry where "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is one of the governing philosophies, it would be easy to assume nothing was wrong with the most popular show on TV. Though last season crushed everything in its path, and though the writers strike means there won't be much in its path to crush this time around, there are going to be changes made, according to the man at the top.

Even as "Idol" season six was dominating the Nielsens, "Idol" nation didn't seem too crazy about the product -- in particular, in the way the contestants became afterthoughts in their own show, taking a back seat to celebrity mentors, more product placement, even the otherwise well-intentioned "Idol Gives Back" charity event.
To read the full thing, click here. As with previous seasons, don't expect much "Idol" blogging from me before the semi-finals begin. Even in a strike season, my patience for the audition episodes only goes so far.


Bobman said...

I see the audition episodes as a sort of America's Funniest Home Videos. Fun background watching, but really how much can you take out of it? I can't imagine getting meaningful blog material from it.

Adam said...

1. The easiest fix for the show is to extend Hollywood Week to at least three hours of tv. It's the best way to boost the drama in a looser setting, let us get to know the competitors betters, etc.

2. Possible fix: is the new semifinal format part of the problem? Going from 24 to 20 to 16 to 12 means (a) there's very little time to get to know them each week, and (b) there's no safety valve for the producers/judges via a wild card to get worthy/diverse people in there. That's how George Huff and Jennifer Hudson made it in season three. (Yes, there were gender balance issues, but those are fixable.)

3. "New Wave" week.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Adam, I don't disagree with you on #1, and probably should have raised that issue on the Nigel call. (You're only supposed to ask one question and one follow-up, and I spent the latter on "Why don't you show ever semi-finalist's audition?") In years past, Nigel and company have said that the Hollywood episodes are always by far the lowest-rated of each season, which is why they scaled them back so much last year. But I think this is a case where the short-term loss will be made up for in the long-term gain.

As for #2, I vastly prefer this semis format to the old one, where your chances of making it to the finals depended on how strong your overall group was. In season two, Clay had to wait for the wild card round because he was in the same grouping with Ruben and Kimberley Locke, while Corey Clark and the singing Marine made it through in a grouping where everyone else was even more heinous. I think Hudson was in the same semi group with Fantasia and DeGarmo, for that matter.

Eric Fingerhut said...

Glad that you asked that question about showing the audition of everyone in the final 24, even if Nigel's answer was ridiculous. (If someone is "boring as hell," how did they make the final 24 in the first place?)

To show 10 hours of audition shows and not take 10-15 minutes of those to show the auditions of the four or five people from the final 24 that they ignore each year is just stupid--especially when they waste our time with those contrived "all the bad singers messing up the lyrics to an Alycia Keys song" montages that are "boring as hell."

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yeah, it was a silly answer. Had he said something like, "We want to show all the auditions, but some people use songs we can't get clearances to show on the air," I'd understand. But if they're good enough to make it to Hollywood, survive Hollywood and survive the boring as hell Chair Episode, they should be good enough to show singing in front of Randy, Paula and Simon at an audition, no?

Adam said...

Alan, wow, that is one of the worst groupings of non-talent ever. Via wiki, that memorably awful ("I'm axing America -- what about the children!") semifinal group:

Sylvia Chibiliti - Didn't We Almost Have It All (by Whitney Houston)
Chip Days - A Song for You (by Donny Hathaway)
Juanita Barber - What About the Children (by Yolanda Adams)
Patrick Lake - When I See You Smile (by Bad English)
Nasheka Siddall - Open My Heart (by Yolanda Adams)
Josh Gracin - I'll Be (by Edwin McCain)
Ashley Hartman - Touch Me in the Morning (by Diana Ross)
Corey Clark - Foolish Heart (by Steve Perry)

Still, the answer to that is to limit the final 24 to talented people. No Sanjayas. No Jon Peter Lewises.

Anonymous said...

Theme nights that would be awesome that would never happen for various reasons:

Morrissey/Smiths night
Rolling Stones night
Dylan night
The Cure night
U2 night
REM night

and of course:

a night where everyone has to cover Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole"

Alan Sepinwall said...

Of those, they did a Dylan Night on Next Great American Band, so it's not like that catalog is unobtainable, I can think of at least two Stones songs that have been performed on Idol (Satisfaction by Bo, and Paint It Black by Gina), and I suspect Bono could be talked into giving them the U2 catalog if it's in some way connected to Idol Gives Back or a similar charity initiative.

They key, in a lot of these cases, would be a willingness to use the songs without requiring the original artists to show up, even for a cameo. I just don't see Mick and Keith wanting or needing to meet this year's version of Chris Richardson.

Anonymous said...

Alan, have you ever been to an Idol taping?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan, have you ever been to an Idol taping?

No. I've never been in LA at a time when a season is going on.

Adam said...

Crap. No more group numbers in the Hollywood round. Stupid change -- I freakin' loved all the "form a group, work all not, negotiate the harmonies" stuff.

Anonymous said...

Funny how you (and I guess a lot of America)don't like the early audition rounds but it's the only thing I can watch. While the actual music from American Idol isn't the worst thing about music in America in the 00's it's pretty close. It's interesting how someone who listened to the Hold Steady as much as you said can also listen to what's on this show (although maybe you just watch it for the TV and not the music as it's your job. Not trying to insult just wondering.

Nicole said...

I had a friend audition for Canadian Idol and when I learned that everyone goes through at least three rounds with the producers before they even get to the judges, I can't find the bad singers funny, only plant put there by the producers for "entertainment". One episode may be funny, but anything more than that is just freak show material.

If it was just bad singers that would be fine, but the staged "mad" people really turns me off. I don't watch until the Hollywood rounds for that reason.

Now I know that you can't access Canadian Idol, but over the years, I have found the finalists to have been much more talented as a whole when compared to the AI finalists. And the playing your own instrument on AI was done last year on CI for auditions, and years before in the groups songs.

Not that I want to start a border war, but with 10% of the US population, as much as I would like to believe that there is just more talent north of the border, I suspect the difference has to do with the US producers wanting flash and bland marketability versus actual musical talent.

dark tyler said...

Smiths night! That was an amazing idea. And what about alternative rock night? I'd die if Idol contestants tackled some NY bands like The Strokes, The Hold Steady, Interpol and such. I'm sick to death of hearing the same songs and the same artists every single year. Maybe the fact that viewers physically need to vomit the moment they hear a yet another Stevie Wonder introduction is another thing Lythgoe should try and fix.

By the way, don't know if this was suggested by you, Alan, or Lythgoe, but SYTYCD as a model for Idol is a great idea. That show, in part because it doesn't have the pressure of needing to keep a 30 million audience every week, basically is Idol done right. Love it!

Finally, can we have Lulu back as a mentor, every week if possible? I loved her, she did a great job, and she's not nearly famous enough for the people to care about her more that the contestants. I'm sure that we'll end up with Barry Manilow again, though.

Anonymous said...

I am simply here to state that I loathe "American Idol" with every fiber of my being and it's re-appearance to mass popularity makes the strike even more appalling.

I am disappointed Alan that you pay attention to this schlock.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's interesting how someone who listened to the Hold Steady as much as you said can also listen to what's on this show (although maybe you just watch it for the TV and not the music as it's your job. Not trying to insult just wondering.

Just as I wouldn't be able to watch nothing but shows as heavy and dense as "The Wire" seven nights a week, I need to mix in some fluff with the cool music. "Idol" satisfies the need for cheese on both a TV and music level. I would never in a million years want to buy an album by most of the contestants (though I have a few Kelly Clarkson songs and some of Bo Bice's '70s covers on my iPod), but I can't help getting sucked in by the positioning of the contestants by the show, the weird themes, the unexpected performances (good and bad), etc.

It's not a good show, but it's kind of a brilliant one, usually in spite of itself. The concept is so irresistible that Lythgoe and company can't screw it up, no matter how hard they sometimes seem to be trying.