TV

It's too late to save 'American Idol'

Jan. 15, 2014 at 10:06 AM ET

Image: American Idol
FOX
"Idol" may be putting less focus on the jokey singers this season, but that -- and other changes -- probably isn't enough to bring viewers back.

"American Idol" requires more reboots than an old computer, and this season is no exception. Heading into its 13th year, Fox's former ratings behemoth is once again revamping its judges' panel, bringing Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. to join holdover Keith Urban. That should make things more entertaining when the show premieres Jan. 15.

As far as saving the program is concerned, however? Forget it. Unless the judges can team up between group performances in the Hollywood round and build a time machine, the days of dominance are over.

Of course, it's all relative. There's no reason to think "Idol's" going off the air anytime soon. Nor is it likely to fall into "X Factor" purgatory. Some viewers tune in out of habit, or because their DVRs make them. Others want to be the first to catch the next potential "Idol" star.

But if "Idol" is chasing the glory days of a decade ago, when Simon Cowell and company were everywhere and the show was ubiquitous conversation on TVs, radios and office breakrooms everywhere, it's doing so in vain. Those days are gone, and ironically the success of "Idol" is to blame.

Too many shows
"Idol" was the only game in town when it arrived on the scene in 2002, but these days there's reality talent competitions on every time you turn on the TV. The stage Cowell once had all to himself now has to be shared with the likes of Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Howard Stern and even Ben Folds.

After 13 years and so many imitators, the magic is gone. Moreover, so is the chemistry. "Idol" hasn't found a group of judges to match the original Randy Jackson-Paula Abdul-Simon Cowell trio, and producers probably look enviously at the Adam-Blake bromance on "The Voice" and remember what they once had.

In yet another attempt to recapture the right formula, "Idol" removed Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj from the judges' panel, meaning that if nothing else, fans will get fewer "dawgs," "hashtag pows" and stories about judges being afraid of each other. The folks behind "Idol" seem to hope the shift on the panel — as well as promises to focus less on bad singers and other tweaks to make the program entertaining before the live shows — help staunch the bleeding audience numbers.

The changes should help "Idol" improve over last season. Then again, that's a low bar, considering season 12 seemed to be a six-month effort in denying viewers what they wanted.

You like this? Too bad!
Last season on "Idol" was a string of bad decisions that looked like they were made by folks who read criticisms of the show and tried to fix the issues with the proverbial Staples "Easy" button.

The problem: Viewers have shown a propensity to vote for white guys with guitars. 
The fix: Forget about finding better singers in other genres — "Idol" just didn't give viewers a chance to vote for the same type of singers again. None of the 10 male semifinalists fit the mold of the previous five champs, and the highest placing guy was Lazaro Arbos, who finished sixth.

The problem: It's been forever since a woman won. 
The fix: "Idol" made the guy contestants so uninspiring that they were the first five finalists eliminated, leaving an all-female final five.

They sure showed us! The problem was that viewers showed them in return by staying away. "Idol's" predictability was boring, and it didn't help that Minaj, after a lot of big talk that she'd be harsh on the contestants because storylines mattered less than talent, turned out to be as saccharine and sappy as the rest of them.

Can Harry save the show?
Connick should at least improve the competition. He's the most intriguing addition to the panel in years. And considering the number of judges parading on and off the show since the original trio brought "Idol" into greatness, that's no small feat. In his previous stints as guest mentor, he's shown no hesitation to call out the judges for their suggestions and comments, including their use of terms such as "pitchy" instead of "awful."

He also hasn't been afraid to challenge the contestants, and his deadpan facial expressions and dry sense of humor make it hard for them — and viewers — to know when he's serious. At least with Connick, "Idol" finally has its first judge since Simon who might be critical of the singers who deserve it.

In addition, of all the singing shows, "Idol" has one of the easiest stories to sell. With all apologies to the coaches on "The Voice," who talk a lot about how their charges are poised for stardom, "Idol" can point to results when it sells that dream. 

Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Phillip Phillips ... anytime "Idol" feels this year's contestants aren't that interesting, it can call upon older footage or live visits to remind everyone what can happen for the new hopefuls. It's also got the hardest working man in America in Ryan Seacrest.

But while "Idol" should be improved, the world has changed and the singing competition has fallen too far to ever again be the cultural force it was when it began.

"American Idol" premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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