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Four ways to improve ‘American Idol’

Four writers offer suggestions for how "American Idol" can rethink its process and freshen up the hit show. Hint: Shut up, live audience.
/ Source: contributors

It may feel as if "American Idol" has been around forever, its format set in stone since the Jurassic period, but that's not really true. The show has made changes. Upping the age limit resulted in an entire new field of possible "Idols." Dropping Brian Dunkleman as co-host resulted in, well, a whole lot more money for Ryan Seacrest.

But "Idol" is slow to make changes, and some viewers are impatient. Four of our writers share their suggestions on what the show should do to stay fresh and improve. Note that no one has suggested Simon try a different color T-shirt.

Ditch the mentorsThere was a time on “American Idol” when musical mentors didn’t exist. The contestants were cast adrift and left to figure it out for themselves. Did Kelly Clarkson get one? Nope. And look at how she went on to failure after failure. But then Barry Manilow had to show up. And then Gloria Estefan. And then more irrelevant musical acts from previous generations, all of whom had something to plug.

Occasionally, the mentors set aside grinning for the camera to actually help a contestant, rather than cultivating even more star-struck hysteria (Lulu!). But most of the viewing pleasure that results from these appearances comes in the form of visceral shocks (Kenny Rogers’ flabbergasting new face) or from contestants who’ve never heard the mentor’s music (Jason Castro’s “I didn’t know a cat sang it” comment to "Cats" creator Andrew Lloyd Webber). Sometimes the fun results from transparent disdain from the mentor herself — Gwen Stefani, mostly.

The mentor gimmick is a useless distraction that pulls attention from what the show should be doing, and that’s drawing viewers closer to a person we want to befriend with our vote. Let Neil Diamond sing on elimination night if he wants, but no one is served by watching him interact with David Archuleta.     —Dave White

Rethink the theme weeksIf "Idol" is looking to create modern pop stars, it seems logical that the weekly musical themes should produce something other than a bad cabaret session. Finalists can hardly be blamed for sounding old-fashioned when they're asked to sing songs by Neil Diamond, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or whichever other old-timer has a new project coming out.

It's time for a change. Instead of using the dusty rolodex that was out-of-date when Randy Jackson was still gigging with Journey, "Idol" should make its themes more reflective of what contestants might expect in the music business.

The addition of musical instruments was a success this season, so how about an "Unplugged" week where everyone does an acoustic performance? Most of the finalists will be playing in smaller clubs after the show, so why not spend a week or two having them play in a more intimate (and realistic) setting than the "Idol" studio? Have the guest mentors offer advice on singing ballads or rock anthems, but don't make the contestants reciprocate by singing songs with which they have no comfort level. More relevant theme weeks will only help the product sound less like a Las Vegas lounge act and more like a Top 40 radio program, and that will make even Simon smile.    —Craig Berman

Shut up, audienceThis season, one of the worst parts of "American Idol" got even worse: the live studio audience. Those people now sometimes drown out the actual singers and judges, and it's time to for the audience to shut up.

A redesigned set resulted in a new mosh pit near the judges' table, so screaming has been front and center this season. To ensure maximum annoyance, producers actually recruit sorority girls from California colleges to stand there and shriek nonsensically. Even worse, the show's audio has been poor in recent weeks, with the director apparently deciding to let us hear more of the audience during performances. There have been moments when the singer's voice is competing with the crowd, and that's ridiculous, even for a show that only pretends to be about singing.

The biggest problem is that the heavily coached crowd's attitude makes little sense. They cheer for all singers, even when they suck, and boo every vaguely negative comment from the judges.

That's obviously not representative of viewers at home, who love some contestants and hate others, so why must we suffer by listening to an audience and its incessant noise that is as annoying, unnecessary, and insulting as a laugh track?    —Andy Dehnart

Stop running the contestants ragged. This has been a season of forgotten words and frayed nerves, with maybe more dropped lyrics than in all the previous seasons combined. But it'd be a lot harder to be sympathetic if the contestants actually had time to learn and rehearse their songs.

Instead, their days are filled up with almost everything but practicing. They have to learn the words and choreography to the elimination-show group performance, record the song for the Ford commercial, film the Ford commercial, record the full-length version of their performance song for iTunes (thus ruining any chance of becoming comfortable with the arrangement that will be on television), schmooze with Neil Diamond, wander around the premiere of whatever Fox movie needs the biggest promotional boost, and so on, and so forth. It's exhausting just to watch from home.

At least on a show like "Project Runway," the boot-camp nature of the time-compressed challenges keeps the designers' focus on the single task that can prevent their elimination. But "Idol" drags its frazzled contestants hither and yon as if to distract them from actually working on their performances. No wonder they can't remember their… uh… what was it…jingle jangle something…    —Marc Hirsh