We'll be the first to admit it: Our salacious predictions about the certain demise of "American Idol" in the wake of Simon Cowell's departure were wrong.
But we weren't alone in our premature doomsaying. For good reason: Flagging ratings, the loss of its most recognizable judge to launch a rival singing-competition show and seeming chaos over choosing his replacement didn't make it look good for the Fox powerhouse about to enter its 10th season.
It's clear that " Idol" has come back with a vengeance. And we're not just talking about season 10's ratings spike — March 9's episode, which raked in 24.2 million viewers total, was up 6 percent in that category compared with the same episode last season. The entire proceedings seem flush with new possibilities and actual talent, not the least of which comes from its extremely likable trio of co-hosts led by a resurgent Jennifer Lopez.
At first, it looked as if Jennifer Lopez might have been the wrong choice as one of the hosts. Not only was her career in a slump, but early on in the audition process, she exhibited signs of having Ellen DeGeneres Disease — too loose with the compliments and sympathetic sobs when dealing with unworthy hopefuls she had trouble saying "no" to.
But little by little, Jenny from the Block stepped up her game. By the time the audition rounds were over, she had proved herself to be more than simply a booster, and had begun dishing out dismissals like a pained judge on "The Gong Show."
While she has regressed slightly during the performance rounds, her track record indicates she has the capacity to get more judgmental as the contestant pool is whittled. More important, her once undeniable star power has grown along with her abilities as a judge. In the audition rounds, one hopeful after another genuflected to her "inspiration." And when her new music video debuted at the climax of last week's results show, it was the highlight of the night and proved that if anyone has the authority to judge what makes a superstar, it's J. Lo herself.
2. Simon Cowell = Debbie Downer
When "Idol" debuted in 2001, Cowell's across-the-pond snark was a breath of fresh air. He was all-too-willing to tear down hopeful, dewy-eyed contestants — and was a more compelling flipside to that the schoolmarmish British host of "The Weakest Link," to boot. As the show became a phenomenon, Simon's edge and insights, not Paula's loopiness or Randy's "s'up dawg" demeanor, was largely considered the driving force behind its ascent in the ratings. So when Simon announced that he was taking off to start the U.S. version of his U.K. hit "The X Factor," a shudder ran through executives at Fox: What ever would become of "American Idol" without Simon?
What we didn't realize was just how bored Simon was. Sure, we miss his on-the-mark criticisms that often helped the contestants up their game, truth is, the man in black had become a real downer. Especially noticeable even during the early audition rounds, with Lopez looking beautiful and adding some true emotion, and Steven Tyler oggling the female contestants, the judges were actually having fun.
And Randy? The former third wheel has stepped up his game and has taken Simon's place as the voice of reason on the panel. Simon, we hardly knew ya.
3. It's the talent, stupid
Last season, the quality of the final 14 contestants was so low that fans and critics alike wondered how, after thousands of auditions, these could possibly have been the best Fox could find. Lee DeWyze? Really?
But legitimate pop-star personalities abound in 2011's batch of finalists, and the diversity ensures that there's something virtually for everyone. Are you a country music fan? Then Alfred E. Neuman lookalike Scotty McCreery is your froggy-voiced man. Is Latin pop more your thing? Try Lopez admirer Karen Rodriguez.
And not only do the contestants demolish past seasons when it comes to talent, they have an appreciation for image, as Paul McDonald's $4,500 custom-made rhinestone suit illustrates a little too well. As Lopez and Tyler can attest, talent and image can create the perfect storm for superstardom. America has taken notice, resulting in 40 million votes last week.
4. Lower age = bigger talent pool
The upswing in talent has been helped by a simple twist in the rules for competing on "Idol": It lowered the age limit from 16 to 15. Shaving off a year brought in a new crop of talent looking to be the next Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, something especially notable during the recent audition rounds.
Of course, as evidenced by talented but childlike Jacee Badeaux, there will always be the question of "How young is too young?" But for the most part, these are teens who have literally grown up with the show and possess a savviness with the media that many of their older counterparts could learn a lot from. Whether purposefully or unconsciously, these kids have studied what works.
Lauren Alaina, 16, has the voice of a Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood even as she retains the giggly girl-next-door demeanor of Kellie Pickler. McCreery, 17, constantly talks about being an honorable man and "living country music." The youngest contestant ever, 15-year-old Thia Megia, has the poise of a Miss America, even when getting (rare) negative critiques.
In an age where a four-year-old can operate an iPhone better than a 40-year-old, it should come as no surprise that the talent pool is skewing younger.
5. 'The X-Factor' is a non-factor
The question is no longer what will "Idol" do without Simon, but whether or not Simon is the major draw he was once considered to be. It's a thought that doesn't bode well for the long-awaited U.S. version of "The X Factor," which will be even older news when it debuts this fall — especially if Paula Abdul joins, as is being suggested. "Idol's" biggest competition may end up being no competition at all for the revived ratings warhorse.
When "Idol" first debuted, it was something genuinely new — a nationwide, televised talent competition that allowed for real rags-to-riches stories, something everyone who sings in the shower could dream of winning, for the first time ever. But "The X Factor" will enter an increasingly crowded and tired field of talent competition shows (including "America's Got Talent" and Abdul's dud "Live to Dance"), and it looks like the show will need something other than Simon's star power to set it apart.
Even Cowell himself concedes that "Idol" is better off without him, which can't be a ringing endorsement for his follow-up endeavor.
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