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New ‘Idol’ season should learn from last year

"American Idol" was on a downward slide, but the 2009 season added some life to the reality show. But can the 2010 season keep up the momentum?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Going into the 2009 season, "American Idol" was in a slump, if not on a downward slide. While the reality competition series remained the number-one television program in the United States, its ratings were lower than in the past, and the show seemed to lack creativity.

Then came season eight, and along with it, fresh life. The show had its stumbles: overrunning its time by as much as eight minutes, for example, and persisting with things like awful lip-synced group numbers, poorly conceived theme weeks, and weak mentors.

But the latest “Idol” season was definitely the highest high the show has had in recent years, and even the post-season drama of judge Paula Abdul quitting and Ellen DeGeneres being hired didn't do much to deflate that.

While it may seem like a season's success is due to chance, there's a lot from last season that this upcoming season can — and should — learn from.

That starts with runner-up Adam Lambert, the standout star of "American Idol 8." He was a performer unlike anyone the show had ever seen, and that originality came along with a lot of personality. It didn't hurt that there were persistent rumors about his not-so-secret sexual orientation, which he discussed publicly only after the show concluded.

As his pre-Thanksgiving AMA performance proved, Adam knows how to get people to watch, pay attention, and talk, never mind buy his records, which Kris Allen, however talented, can't really claim to do. And while the other contestants contributed, too, Adam knew how to make people tune in.

It's all about the performers
That's the biggest lesson season eight has to offer season nine: Contestants matter more than anything else.

From motorcycle jackets to snazzy suits, the “American Idol” runner-up knew how to dress for each song.

It's not just their singing ability, but their stage presence and personality. While the singers going to Hollywood have already been chosen, the judges and producers should look for and keep as many Adam Lamberts as they can. Not Adam clones, but people who have equal amounts of originality, talent, and personality. They're preferable to someone who can sing but is boring.

As new judge Ellen DeGeneres enters the arena, it's worth remembering that the last new judge, Kara DioGuardi did actually contribute positively to the show, and that moderate shake-ups of the formula actually help rather than hurt. Fox doesn't want to damage its series, but season eight proved that experimentation and change can make things better.

A lot of the negative reaction to Kara seemed to be due to a simple fear of change, as the judging panel had stayed pretty much exactly the same for seven seasons. Sexism may have entered in also, since thanks to Paula, some viewers couldn't imagine a female judge with something relevant to add to the discussion beyond critiques of clothing and inane comments about personality. But Kara offered a mix of specific singing critiques and comments about stage presence, which added to the other judges' comments, rather than merely duplicating them.

Ellen DeGeneres' lack of music credentials already has some people freaking out, but she's a talented television personality and, even better, an "American Idol" fan. The judges may take a few episodes to find their footing, and she won't be Paula Abdul (thankfully). But Ellen will undoubtedly bring something new to their table.

Show should have kept old semifinal formatAnother change that took place last season was in the semifinal rounds. The show started with a top 36, and one group of 12 contestants performed each week. While it still took the same amount of time to get to the start of the finals, the new format delayed the inevitable "Idol" fatigue by not subjecting viewers to the same contestants week after week from February to May.

From William Hung to Carrie Underwood, the hit reality show has produced some unforgettable characters and some true stars.

Instead, there were three weeks of new faces. Those who may have had unfortunate stumbles during their first and only attempt to make it into the top 12 (which became a top 13) had the wild card round to save them, and all was well.

Alas, for season nine, producers decided to return to the old top 24 format, 12 men and 12 women who will perform and be eliminated each week until just six men and six women remain.

The season's tone was set by a significant change that came as soon as the season debuted, one that will hopefully survive to make season nine even better: the audition episodes were better than they'd been in years. For starters, the mean streak that had the show mocking challenged individuals in season six seemed to have completely disappeared, as did the intense focus on the delusional singers.

In its place was a good balance of entertainment, humor, emotional stories, freaks, judge horseplay, and talented singers. Sure, some people enjoy watching the idiots, but a parade of nothing but awfulness isn't a good way to begin.

Not everything good about season eight can or will continue into season nine. “Idol Gives Back” is unfortunately returning with its well-intentioned but boring episodes; Adam Lambert may return to perform on a results show, but can't be replaced; the semifinal rounds have already reverted back.

But television's number one show can continue to age gracefully, if it doesn't forget what it learned in the past.

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