Pop Culture

‘Idol’ results show revels in cruelty

The first four “American Idol 5” contestants to be eliminated based upon audience votes were no surprise.

Arguably, there were worse performances from less-charismatic, less-attractive contestants, particularly on the men’s side. But all four who went home — Bobby Bennett, Patrick Hall, Becky O’Donohue, and Stevie Scott — did not perform well during their first solo performance. The judges described their performances as average or unmemorable.

As the lights dimmed and the music grew more ominous, host Ryan Seacrest began the long ordeal of eliminating contestants for the first time this season. He did not start the show by saying, “Becky, Bobby, Stevie, and Patrick, you’re all going home. Say goodbye. Good night!”

Instead, he had to fill 44 minutes of air time, but even the endless recaps of the songs performed and the judges’ comments couldn't kill that much time. So as usual, Ryan ordered various groups of contestants to stand up or sit down, marking them for possible elimination or sending them back to the security of the couches. In other words: Manufacturing all sorts of drama and tension, even where none exists.

For the first female elimination, Becky, Brenna, and Kinnik were called to center stage, where Ryan first told Kinnik that she was safe. That left roommates Brenna and Becky on stage, their close relationship making the tension much harder, they said.

Later in the show, when it came time for the second female elimination, both Kinnik and Brenna were told that they were safe. In other words, Brenna was left on stage with her roommate for no reason except to manufacture drama; neither she nor Kinnik was in danger of being eliminated.

As Ryan searched for the woman who’d received the second-least number of votes, he narrowed the pool to just two. “Heather and Stevie, if you would stand up and join me at the center of the stage,” he requested. They got up off the blue couch, nervously adjusting their shirts as they started walking toward the stage.

But they hadn’t taken more than a few steps when Ryan jumped in and said, “On second thought, Heather, have a seat. Stevie, you are leaving us tonight.” He added, with fake sincerity, “I’m sorry, darling.”

Cruelty is compellingWas all of this mean? Probably. Unnecessarily cruel? Most likely. Incredibly compelling television? Definitely.

This Thursday evening was called “the most competitive night in the history of American television” by NBC’s Dick Ebersol, because of the epic face-off between “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Survivor,” and women's figure skating, arguably the most popular event of the Torino winter Olympics.

When the ratings for Thursday are announced, “American Idol” will almost undoubtedly be the undisputed ratings victor, because more than any other show on television, it aggressively and blatantly destroys its contestants to the delight of the viewing public. That’s how it became the number-one TV show in the country.

In this, the fifth season, the cruel eliminations are expected. Producers do everything in their power to emotionally manipulate the contestants in order to increase our entertainment, and to manipulate viewers.

“We don’t make it easy, that’s for sure.” Ryan Seacrest, said, practically gloating, as he brought the first three women onto the stage before eliminating Becky O’Donohue. As they stood there, he said, solemnly, “Brenna.” You could just feel her insides pureeing as her fans burst into tears. But whoops, fooled again. “You will find out with the rest of us who it is after the break,” Seacrest said to her, deploying one of his most common tricks.

Later, though, with two of the guys, he changed his methodology. Ryan told Bobby and Jose “Sway” Penala, “One of you has the lowest number of votes, and is out of the competition. And you are going to find out” — he let seconds tick by for maximum dramatic effect — “right now. Bobby, it’s you.”

And this is just the first week of eliminations. To keep this level of intensity and excitement up, Ryan will have to unleash pit bulls onto the contestants during week six. “If a dog doesn’t latch on to your neck, you’re safe.” Or maybe he’ll really try to ratchet up the emotion, to force out some tears: “One of you is safe, but I just found out your beloved grandmother died this morning. The other will go home, where you’ll find that our producers stomped your kitten to death.”

One of the show’s producers, Nigel Lythgoe, told the press earlier this year that the eliminations are “exceptionally mean” but says it’s because “it would be very boring if we just say you’re in, you’re in.” He added, “It’s only mean in a good-hearted way.”

But it’s not good-hearted, especially because the manipulated eliminations have the power to affect future voting. Watching Brenna and Kinnik be teased with the possibility of elimination, even though neither was in the bottom two, communicates to the audience that there’s something wrong with both of them, or at least that they’re plausible contenders for elimination.

If the "Idol" producers wanted someone to leave the competition, they wouldn’t have to manipulate votes or break any rules. All they’d have to do is use the eliminations to create the perception of weakness over a number of weeks, and that person’s fans could just stop voting for them. The opposite could happen, too, with an unexpected placement in the alleged “bottom two” helping to rally a singer’s fans.

Even if they’re only trying to increase their ratings, producers get to maximize the humiliation and emotion by constructing these elimination scenarios for Ryan Seacrest to act out. And audiences love it.

Is it any wonder, then, that “American Idol” is destroying the Olympics in the ratings? The Olympics have, ironically enough, indirectly emulated “Idol”’s model. The video packages that introduce athletes tell a story, generally one that shows an athlete overcoming adversity and the potential for failure, eventually reaching their goals by becoming the best of their class.

That’s what “American Idol” does, too; as eliminations continue, the pool narrows, and one person rises above to become the next superstar. But unlike the Olympics, “Idol” allows the audience itself to rip contestants apart and build others up. And that’s why it will always win.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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