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‘Idol’ minds should ponder tweaks for next year

"American Idol" producers need to raise the stakes for winners, play up stories behind the contestants next season.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

For a show that still dominates the ratings, "American Idol" has attracted a lot of speculation that it's already on the road to ruin.

2007 was definitely a down year for "Idol," lacking the star power of previous campaigns. But don't read too much into that. "Idol" is very good at spotting weaknesses and modifying its format accordingly to avoid any significant dropoff the following year.

The last time the naysayers were this vocal came after the third season, where the talent pool was widely seen as being at an all-time low. Winner Fantasia Barrino used the competition as a springboard to a strong career in entertainment, and Jennifer Hudson eventually parlayed her "Idol" appearance into an Oscar for "Dreamgirls," but it lacked the overall talent and interest level of other seasons.

"Idol" responded to that challenge with several changes to the format, one of which increased the age limit for contestants to 28. That alone helped raise the talent pool, and it showed that those associated with the show aren't afraid to shake things up.

More tweaking is likely to take place before the next season begins in January.

Younger is better
Season six didn't boast the most dynamic group of finalists ever, nor did it have a wide variety of musical styles. However, this is one season where America can't be blamed for voting for the wrong people. The judges simply did a poor job of selecting the 24 semifinalists.

It was obvious during the selection process that the show had a certain set of criteria in mind. Contestants were older which resulted in hopefuls who were more technically proficient than previous seasons, but less compelling to voters.

No 16-year-olds made it out of Hollywood, and the only teens to make the semis were Jordin Sparks, Sanjaya Malakar and Stephanie Edwards.

Jordin won the whole thing, while Sanjaya served as the season's most memorable contestant. Other younger contestants might have had similar impact, but never got the chance.

When there are too many young performers, the show takes on the look and feel of a high-school talent show. But the pendulum swung too far in the direction of the veterans this season.

Go countryMuch like the third season, most memorable for the "three divas" (Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and LaToya London), season six was focused on one genre. Jordin, Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones were all most comfortable singing R&B tunes.

That's fine as far as it goes, but the lack of a true country singer among the 24 semifinalists was a curious omission. Carrie Underwood was the season four champion, while Kellie Pickler was among the most memorable of last year's group of finalists.

It's understandable if the judges and producers feared that picking another blonde small-town girl would make the show seem too predictable. But sometimes demographics have to be taken into account. When picking the best 24 singers from a group of 100,000 auditioners, the shades of difference between the top contenders can be minuscule. Why not make an effort to get a wider cross-section of styles, to give the voters more options?

Make people care"Idol" was very good this season about adding drama to the auditions.

Viewers found out LaKisha Jones was a single mother and Phil Stacey was a Navy sailor who missed his daughter's birth to try out for the show. Viewers cared, and cheered when they advanced.

And then ... nothing. Although every results show had so much filler that Ryan Seacrest felt compelled to make jokes about it each week, the producers never showed footage that made people feel a connection with the contestants. Instead, Ryan asked random passersby who they preferred, or wasted time making the same jokes with Simon that he's done for six years.

This time, it really was a singing competition. But that's not the best way of going about things, because a competition to decide between 12 singers no one cares about is not very compelling. Each of the finalists had their own group of hardcore fans, but the show's producers and editors didn't make it easy.

No one got the sense that failing to vote for Haley Scarnato would doom her to a life of working retail, or that Brandon Rogers would have to apply at the local hardware store. How badly did the contestants want to win? What had they already sacrificed in pursuit of their dream? All too often, the only answer the viewers had was "I don't know."

Raise the stakesAs the show has gotten bigger, the prize at stake seems smaller. Or at least, it's perceived that way.

The winner gets a million-dollar record deal, but the loser generally does equally well. Eight of the 12 finalists from last season already have albums in stores or on the way.

Moreover, it's "Idol's" bad luck that the two breakthrough artists of the past 12 months have been Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson, neither of whom made it even as far as the season finale. It leads to the sense that winning doesn't really matter, that just making it into the final half-dozen or so finalists is enough to secure a successful career. The result is less of an imperative to vote, because the difference between first, second, and fourth is seen as negligible.

"Idol" needs to do something to assure the viewers that they're not just picking a winner — they're anointing a superstar. Maybe that means a longer deal for more money. Maybe it means a solo tour in big venues, or TV appearances, or whatever. Maybe it just means putting the "Idol" hype machine on overdrive to secure the winner's career.

Either way, the winner has to become a superstar, or what's the point?

It's great that everyone on the show always seems to get along, and creating a backstabbing atmosphere like on wouldn't make the show any better. But it would be great to get the sense that the contestants really, really wanted to win and that second place was a poor consolation.

The winner always seems to cry tears of joy onstage. It wouldn’t kill “Idol” to have a season where the runner-up shed a few tears of sorrow or frustration.

New judges
Odds are small that the show will replace any of the three established judges. Getting rid of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, or Simon Cowell at this point would be like recasting the lead roles on “Friends” midway through the show’s run.

But one fix may be to get guest judges or mentors with a little more bite to them. Musical guests tend to be selling something, so they are ridiculously eager to be liked and never have a bad thing to say about the finalists. That’s fine, if they really do serve as mentors and put an effort into getting the singers to perform at their best.

But Simon is the most popular judge for a reason; viewers appreciate his hostility, because he’s seen as being honest. Adding an occasional critical companion would be an interesting twist. Having Tony Bennett on to praise the contestants is fine, but wouldn’t it be neat to occasionally have a Jack Black type to give comments like “Sanjaya, that just sucked”?

More Sanjayas, fewer Antonellas
No finalist caused more angst than Sanjaya Malakar. He was the target of Howard Stern, Internet naysayers, and critics who felt he shouldn’t be on the show at all. Every week he advanced increased the buzz around him; watercooler talk was about his performance, or at least

But the critics have it backwards. Sanjaya wasn’t a problem. He was the best thing to happen to the show all season, a unique and controversial talent on a season that was otherwise the blandest in history. Love him or hate him, he inspired passion like nobody else.

It’s often been said that the show would get a spike in the ratings if occasionally viewers could vote against their least favorite finalist, rather than for their top choice. “Idol’s” unlikely to go in that direction, but every good story needs a villain or two. When it’s someone who seems as likeable as Sanjaya does, it’s just an added bonus.

On the other hand, no semifinalist caused more angst than Antonella Barba, and it had nothing to do with her singing. Risque pictures of her found their way to the Internet, and they overwhelmed every other story angle as long as she was on the show.

That’s an issue that’s tough for “Idol” to handle. What is the show supposed to do when something like this, that’s embarrassing to the show but isn’t really the contestant’s fault, makes the news?

It’s a practical and ethical challenge with no easy answers, but the show will need to get a better plan in place by January. This is something that’s likely to occur again and again in coming seasons — anyone with a vendetta can post damaging information about a contestant, real or made-up, and see it disseminated across the world with the click of a mouse. The issue is sure to reemerge. Much like reality television, it’s just a fact of life these days.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.