"The Next Great American Band" hopes to win an audience by following the "American Idol" blueprint, featuring groups instead of individual singers. If it succeeds, however, it won't be solely on its rival's coattails. FOX is not inclined to take the risks necessary to make that happen.
Ordinarily, networks have a hard time resisting the temptation to take a powerful brand name and milk it for everything its worth. This season, ABC took its "Grey's Anatomy" franchise and spun off "Private Practice," and the network misses no opportunity to remind its audience that the new show was a safe choice because its lead character came from "Grey's." Voila — a new top 20 drama using old favorites.
Apart from the disastrous "From Justin to Kelly" movie that we'd all like to forget, FOX thus far has been much more protective with its "American Idol" brand name, showing great restraint by not milking this franchise until it runs dry. "Idol" is so much of a cash cow right now that there's no sense in making that part of the stakes.
Indeed, it looks like the network is afraid that it will oversaturate the market and damage its flagship program if the spin-offs fail. That's apparent in its initial treatment of "The Next Great American Band," which debuts Friday night.
"The Next Great American Band" has a lot of the elements that made "Idol" great, starting with the people at 19 Entertainment. The company may not produce highbrow programming, but it's adept at producing shows that instantly make viewers comfortable with the format and ready to cheer for their favorites — in other words, programming that's the microwave pizzas of the entertainment world.
Like every other show of its type, this one has the standard three judges playing their appointed roles. John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls is the modern musical act, Shelia E. the ‘80s "star" and Ian Dickson, the acerbic foreigner, runs the show. It features talented and delusional performers, with some destined to be cheered and others mocked from their first appearance on TV.
Moreover, Rzeznik and the Goo Goo Dolls are still a relevant music act, which is way ahead of any of the "Idol" troika. Whether his presence increases the show's credibility or diminishes that of the band remains to be seen, but at least he's on the radio and on non-oldies stations. And it looks like the three judges may not take themselves as seriously as the Simon-Paula-Randy juggernaut, a trio that sometimes acts like the fate of the world rests on coming up with the perfect bit of commentary for its least-favorite acts.
It also has some support from the "Idol" franchise, but not as much as you might think. In fact, in a lot of ways it looks like the show is being set up to fail.
Start with the timeslot: Fridays at 8 p.m., where the competition isn't just the other TV shows, but evening plans as well.
"The Next Great American Band" will face decent competition in its time slot, as it's up against CBS' "Ghost Whisperer," NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and ABC's "20/20" — or whatever rerun ABC chooses to run in that slot. None of those shows are anywhere close to being in the top 20 of the Nielsens.
On the positive side, there's lots of room for this show to make an impact, since all it needs to do is get people who ordinarily aren't watching television on Friday nights to flip on the tube and give it a chance. A negative spin is that people tend not to plan their Friday nights around television in the first place. If the people in targeted demographics plan to start their weekend by seeing a band live and in person instead of watching a bunch of groups playing on TV, it's not going to generate big numbers.
It's possible that being on earlier rather than later will help, as fans of live music can theoretically watch the show and then go out to a club afterward. But it's more likely that interested viewers will set up their DVRs and watch later, a practice that doesn't factor into immediate Nielsen rating numbers and may have less of an impact with advertisers.
Moreover, one of the appeals of "Idol" is that it's a great show to talk about at the office. Singers take the stage on a Tuesday, and the Wednesday coffee break is all about who did well and who was terrible. Wednesday night is the results show, and Thursday is usually filled with outrage over America's choice. It encourages discussion, which increases the viewer investment in the show.
It will be hard for "The Next Great American Band" to ride that same dynamic because it's more than 48 hours between that and the start of the work week. It's never going to own the Monday morning conversation the way "Idol" sometimes does after it airs.
Also, the show's format itself suffers from the same weakness as many of its rivals — it's so derivative of "Idol" that it looks like a poor cousin of the original. Hey, look, it's the guy with the accent as the lead judge! Just like on "Idol." And "So You Think You Can Dance." And "Dancing With the Stars." And "America's Got Talent." What would an American reality show be without a foreigner being the bad cop?
Bands will decide credibility
On the other hand, it's not like the network is new to this. It could be that the time slot is designed to just be a staging area for this initial season, with better days looming if it's brought back.
Though it seems crazy now, FOX executives weren't all confident that "American Idol" was going to succeed. It started off as a summer show, where it could fade away quietly if it didn't strike a chord. Instead, it not only drew a nice summer audience, it came through with a winner with the chops to make it in the music business. Kelly Clarkson's success gave the show the credibility to build on that initial success and create a model reality television franchise.
"The Next Great American Band" begins under similar circumstances. If it turns out that what's so successful with individual performers doesn't work for bands, it can be allowed to quietly fade into the ether without doing much damage to the FOX icon.
If one of these initial bands does become successful, however, this could be the start of another reality TV juggernaut. If the show does indeed produce the next great American band, or at least a reasonable facsimile capable of smiling on cue and selling iTunes downloads, there's no reason it can't become the next bulwark of the reality show landscape. But FOX is definitely making the show earn that distinction based on its performance, not its parentage.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.