Pop Culture

‘Idol’s’ run of changes make disjointed season

Is there something wrong with "American Idol"?

Lately, something seems off, like the show is fidgeting and can't quite find its groove. Since the start of the current season, "Idol" has been peppered with a steady diet of small changes that subtly suggest a newfound crisis of confidence.

How else to explain the events of movie-song night, when it was decided that each contestant would face the wrath of only two judges? The official explanation was that it was to prevent the show from running long yet again. For that to make sense, though, you'd have to assume that nobody who works for "Idol" has ever heard of such concepts as "editing" and "cutting down on the filler." (It's "Idol," so they may not have.)

Either way, what seemed like a small, isolated experiment (which was abandoned the next week) was really just the latest in a long line of tweaks that go all the way back to the addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi last summer.

There's been the show's first top 13, adding Anoop Desai to what had always been a group of 12. There's the way the judges have occasionally rotated throughout the night, rather than always upshifting slowly from Randy Jackson's nonsense to Simon Cowell's bracing reality check. The humiliating Judges' Save, used oddly on Matt Giraud, even though Simon bluntly said he had no chance to win. Introducing the not-so-awesome foursome by having them walk down a stairway from nowhere like they were second-string royalty. Pre-taped and lip-synched group performances, which both cuts down on their cheesy amateur-hour appeal and obscures the fact that some of the contestants might not, in fact, be able to sing all that well. Last week's sudden (and shockingly enjoyable) lack of pre-song video packages.

When a show makes changes this numerous and scattershot, it's usually a sign that it's in trouble and nobody can figure out why.

There might be some very good reasons why the show is searching for something — anything — that will stick. The ratings are always a good place to start. On a week-to-week comparison with last year, this season's "Idol" has lost millions of viewers. One week, the audience for the performance episode was down 5.4 million. That's one out of every five viewers who didn't come back. “Idol” may still be the most popular show on television, but with those numbers, it might not be for long.

Past changes have been less joltingThere's also the question of who's running the ship. Longtime executive producer Nigel Lythgoe stepped down after last season to concentrate on "So You Think You Can Dance." It could be that the recent false starts and random rule changes could be the result of those remaining trying to pick up the slack.

There is, of course, a chicken-or-egg question as to whether the tweaks followed the ratings downturn or vice versa. And poorly-thought-out changes aren't exactly new to "Idol." Last season in particular saw boneheaded additions such as the viewer call-in segment and themed semifinals.

As ill-considered as they were, though, those changes didn't reek of desperation. For one thing, the show stood firmly behind them. When someone decided to let folks at home kill time during an hour-long results show by asking pre-screened, content-free questions, the show committed to it. It may have been stupid, but at least it was stupid for weeks on end.

This year, many of the new changes haven't lasted very long, suggesting that "Idol" knows that they're not working. The result has been the most disjointed season in the show's history, with the constant adjustments violating one of the tacit appeals of reality television: consistency of format. Viewers of shows like "Idol," "Survivor" and "Dancing With The Stars" expect the rules to be the same from week to week, with the fun stemming from the way that contestants, judges and hosts alike work within their strictures.

But "Idol," it appears, has chosen chaos. And as viewers watch the industry leader flailing to maintain its foothold, it's helpful to remember that one of the show's main sponsors is Coca-Cola, which knows a thing or two about this process. It could be that this could go down as the season was when America was introduced to New "Idol."

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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