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‘Idol’ still resonates with viewers

Changes, controversy only made show stronger. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Before the fourth season of “American Idol” began, then-Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said that it wouldn’t be a shock if the show’s ratings declined this season. But from the opening broadcast — seen by nearly 34 million viewers — to the May 25 finale, Fox’s signature reality TV franchise was as strong as ever.

What that means, apart from it being a bad idea to ask Berman for her predictions on the upcoming TV season, is that the “Idol” concept still resonates with viewers. It and “Survivor” are the two strongest franchises in the reality-TV market.

That’s no accident. Both shows have maintained the substance of their format while tweaking it as necessary to keep it fresh each season.

Everyone dreams about becoming a pop star. What the “Idol” producers do is both give a selection of contestants a chance at fulfilling that dream, and gives the audience a vested interest in who wins. You, the viewer, can personally contribute to making someone’s dream come true.

This is not “The Apprentice,” where viewers are asked to care about sitting back and watching which whiny up-and-coming backstabber Donald Trump will pick to join his company. Simon Cowell’s caustic comments and an obsession with embarrassing the worst auditioners aside, it’s generally a wholesome show with wholesome people eagerly looking to make it big in music.

‘Idol’ wannabes are just so goshdarn niceBo Bice may be 29 years old with long hair and a pair of drug arrests, but he’s humble and polite no matter what the judges throw his way. Constantine Maroulis, who was what passes for a “bad boy” rocker, covered Bonnie Raitt and the Partridge Family, not to mention “My Funny Valentine.” 

Of course, there's always one or two each season who don't fit the mold. But the Scott Savol-types tend to be rare, and even they have compelling storylines (although as Savol ultimately learned, the danger with taking on Simon Cowell is that he's guaranteed his spot on the show, and the contestant never is). But in a genre that often features people tossing ethics and morals aside to get ahead, “Idol” generally  features a group of finalists who get along and cheer each other on.

That may be because the stakes are not that high, and it’s arguably the only reality show where they decrease as time goes on. While being the “Idol” is nice, if you were to ask each of the contestants why they tried out the honest answer would likely be simply “to make it in the music business.” All the finalists are on a group CD that’s in stores now, most will be touring with each other this summer, and even making it a few weeks on the show may be the exposure some need to take that next step in music.

Bo Bice may not have won the competition, but making it to the final gave him all the exposure he needed to expose a record deal of his own. The same is likely true for third-place finisher Vonzell Solomon, and several of the others. Plus, based on her performance at the red carpet show Wednesday, Mikalah Gordon appears to have the voice to one day replace Joan Rivers at the Oscars.

That’s how “American Idol” is supposed to function, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. The appeal of “Idol” is that once the semifinal round begins, voters have sole sway over who stays and who goes. For that to work, however, people need to care about the outcome.

Raising age limit gave show staying powerSeason three lacked the talent to really get passions flowing — winner Fantasia Barrino was impressive, but the rest of the finalists tended to sound like people who hadn’t been discovered for a reason. So the show decided to increase the talent base by upping the age limit from 26 to 28.

No change has made a bigger impact.

While Underwood would have been eligible any season, most of the memorable contestants would not have even been eligible to try out last season. 

Discounting third-place finisher Vonzell Solomon for a moment, were there four more memorable runners-up in “Idol” history than Bice, Maroulis, Nadia Turner and Scott Savol? All were 28 when they auditioned.

That decision, more than anything else, signaled a commitment to give the show some staying power. It’s one thing to give the winner a record deal, but if the “Idol” album then flops, the concept of the show falls apart. The show needs people who can be stars once the initial hype fades, and the age increase ensures a better chance that it will get them.

Between now and the next “Idol” season, producers will be looking to see what additional changes they can make to keep the show running on all cylinders. There’s still much the show can do to keep the franchise strong for next season.

This year, offstage drama made the news as much as anything the contestants did. Some of the events, such as the phone-number glitch that caused one heat in the final round to have to be re-aired, should be easy to fix by simply paying more attention to detail.

Secrets aplentyThere are a ton of "X-Files"-esque conspiracies surrounding “Idol” about rigged results and such, and while it’s extremely unlikely that any of that is going on (what would the incentive possibly be?), the producers bring it on themselves. “American Idol” is extremely close-lipped about the results each week. Viewers learn the amount of total votes, but not the distribution. The bottom three finishers are singled out, but the rest are just clumped together on the “safe” chairs.

Why that is, nobody knows. Probably, the number of votes would increase if the show was more transparent — if Carrie had fallen behind Bo in the rankings, her fans would have had extra incentive to call in and get her back on top. Maybe the show feels it would have to add additional phone lines, and the expense would be too great.

Because of that secrecy, though, “Idol” producers have to realize that they can’t afford any other snafus like the mistyped phone numbers — or a similar mistake that appeared later in the season on the closed-captioning. The moment that a critical mass of viewers start to wonder if the show really is rigged is the moment "Idol" joins “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” on the sidelines.

What about Paula?
But the central question of the summer won’t be anything related to the show’s bells and whistles. It will be something more substantial.

The most predictable part of the show right now, aside from Ryan Seacrest’s jokes, is the judges. After spending four seasons with Simon, Randy and Paula, everyone in the audience knows what each is going to say. Simon will be the harsh bringer of reality to eager but flawed dreamers, Randy will say “dawg” and “a’ight” and mix moments of insight with random fist-pumping, and Paula will be unfailingly positive.

It’s unlikely that Fox will make any wholesale changes here; Simon’s too popular as the judge viewers love to hate, and there’s no indication that Randy’s job is in any danger. The real questions concern the status of Paula.

She’s the least insightful of the trio. That was particularly evident this season, when she made it plain that she plays the role of a feelgood cheerleader rather than a critic. She’s like the soccer mom who tells every kid they did great, even the one who got tangled up in the goalie nets — it’s just meaningless prattle.

Of course, being predictable was the least of Paula’s problems this season, as she was dogged by controversy, capped off by Corey Clark appearing on ABC’s "PrimeTime Live" to talk about an alleged affair between them when he was a contestant on the show. Ironically, that accusation may wind up helping her. It will be difficult for the show to get rid of her now without it seeming like a reaction to her off-screen behavior, even if the impetus really is her ability to judge.

It also helps that the controversy didn't hurt the show's ratings. Far from it — it was like the viewers collectively decided not to let any distractions deter them from watching. The allegation about an affair between a judge and a contestant? Great fodder for late-night comics, but nothing productive for the other shows that went up against Idol every week. A website reports that Savol and Bice have each been arrested? Forgive and forget, the voters said.

Whether it’s someone new on the bench or a return to a series of guest judges, it would only help matters if the show could come up with someone who offered actual music advice beyond “it was pitchy” or “it sounded like something I might have heard in a karaoke bar in Mozambique in 1977.”

When guest judge Clive Davis told Vonzell Solomon she shouldn’t allow herself to smile while singing “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” since it’s a song about heartbreak, the comment was notable because it seemed so out of place. That might have been the first useful bit of criticism offered all season.

At least the Fox brass doesn’t need to worry very much about criticism. There’s no indication that one of its signature programs won’t be ready with another round of potential stars and hideous poseurs once again in season five.