Aug. 10, 2011 at 2:50 PM ET
With Jennifer Lopez back in the fold, “American Idol” will return for its 11th season with the same judging panel it had a year ago. The trio of J.Lo, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson got a lot of credit for giving “Idol” a fresh face and a gentler attitude that kept it a ratings powerhouse despite the loss of Simon Cowell. So that means it’s good news that all three are back, right?
When “Idol” returns in January, it will be in a very different landscape than the one it left in May. The surprising success of “The Voice” and Simon's return to TV on this fall’s “The X Factor” mean that “Idol” is no longer the only musical talent show in town.
If Fox is smart, "The X-Factor" factor won't be an issue, and it will promote its new program and "Idol" as contrasting siblings rather than competitors. “X Factor” would take its cue from Simon and be the meaner show with the higher stakes, with "Idol" as the nurturing outlet for teenage dreamers.
As for NBC's “The Voice,” maybe it won’t be able to sustain its surprising early success now that we’ve all seen the gimmicks. But even assuming that happens and everyone plays along, there’s a danger that in being complacent, “Idol” is trying to replicate a season 10 sizzle that may have been the result of non-repeatable events.
“Idol” made it through season 10 with a lot of flash and dash. Tyler's personality was the story early, while his autobiography and J.Lo's Most Beautiful Person award and new singles and videos kept the show in the headlines late. And to give the judges credit, the singers they picked were not only talented, but more unique than the typical group of finalists. Naima Adedapo, Casey Abrams, James Durbin and Haley Reinhart all added some badly needed spice to what’s ordinarily a more mundane selection of singers. Plus, the final duo of Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery was a huge hit with the teenage audience, which made the marketers and the phone carriers who charge by the text message very happy.
That masked the performance of a panel that was rarely critical of its contestants and unwilling to push them to stretch themselves. Particularly after Pia Toscano's early exit, all three judges were hard-pressed to offer anything that wasn’t heartfelt praise, and as a result everyone sounded pretty much the same every week. Mentor Jimmy Iovine offered suggestions and criticisms, but the contestants often chose to go the easier route and stick with what had gotten them that far, which eliminated the pleasure of watching singers develop over time. With a less compelling group of contestants, that could be the recipe for picking up the remote control and changing channels.
Was season 10 an indication that Simon was just a cranky foreigner and the “Idol” franchise could thrive for years to come without him? Or lightning in a bottle that can’t be repeated? We’ll start finding out the answer this January.
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Craig Berman is TODAY.com's "American Idol" correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @CraigBerman.