Is Fox out to once and for all destroy the mighty “American Idol”? It certainly looks that way, though I can’t imagine why the network would want to do so. After all, where would Fox have been during the last ten years without “Idol”? Would the successes of “House,” “24,” “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Bones” have been enough to keep the network alive and well without the star-making competition powerhouse at the center of it all?
The last thing Fox needs is a mass exodus from its loyal viewer base when “American Idol” returns in January for its 12th season. But that’s exactly what it’s going to get if something isn’t done about the collective circus act that has been cobbled together at its all-important judges table. The cell phone video leaked this week of divas Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey having a titanic spat at an audition in Charlotte, N.C., was nothing less than disgraceful, though not entirely surprising. This is the kind of garbage viewers get when producers and executives lose sight of or interest in television programs. The lucky ones simply jump the shark. Others get eaten alive by a tank full of them. That would appear to be the fate that awaits the long-beloved “American Idol” in 2013 if it is allowed to become a full-on freak show.
Programming executives at Fox should be more concerned than ever about “Idol,” given the issues the network has faced during the opening weeks of the 2012-13 season, including the instant failure of its lone new drama “The Mob Doctor” and the disappointing ratings for its Tuesday comedy block. (The latter is especially troublesome, seeing as three of the four sitcoms in that group – “Raising Hope,” “New Girl” and “Ben and Kate” – deserve to be seen by audiences larger than those that have tuned in.) Meantime, it doesn’t seem as though new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato have done all that much to revitalize “The X Factor,” which is still the most garishly overproduced competition series on television.
Some “industry observers” have speculated that Fox deliberately released the Minaj-Carey video as a means of reigniting interest in “Idol” and creating some kind of warped buzz intended to motivate accident-watchers to tune in. If that’s true – and I’m not saying it is -- the network has betrayed a serious lack of good judgment. Diva spats are not what “Idol” is about, and the audience will not tolerate them. To put that another way, even the most loyal “Idol” viewers will not suffer fools. In fact, I’ll bet a significant number of them have already decided not to watch the show next year, rather than see something that they embraced for so long go so horribly wrong.
Though he’s survived many other “Idol”-quakes, Randy Jackson must on some level be dismayed to see the show that made him a household name degenerate into a mockery of itself. As for country superstar Keith Urban, the other new judge, he is by all accounts a class act, so I can’t believe he’s comfortable in such a juvenile environment. As for the ladies, all I will say is that I have had long conversations with people who have worked with one of the two, so I am not at all surprised by the bad behavior already on display. Fox needs to remove at least one of them right now, if only to preserve the decorum of a first-class franchise that has produced a truly impressive roster of stars, including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Constantine Maroulis, Katharine McPhee and Adam Lambert, not one of whom (to my knowledge) has ever publicly behaved in as childish a manner as Minaj and Carey in that video.
Of course, one has to wonder why Fox decided to go with the four-judge format again in the first place, regardless of who those judges may be, because that has worked so well for the show in the past – not!
More than anything, the “Idol” embarrassment this week once again points to the problem with reality competition shows that place too much emphasis on their judges over their contestants. The exception is NBC’s “The Voice,” which does indeed owe much of its success to the remarkable four-way chemistry between Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton. But that show keeps its judges on edge and humanizes them during its blind audition weeks when they must attempt to convince contestants to join their respective teams.
As a rule, the less fuss made over judges, the better. (Again, think of how little its big-name judges have contributed to the stubbornly unremarkable “X Factor.”) Remember, “Idol” lost viewers when it added Ellen DeGeneres to its judges’ table in Season 9, and continued to lose them during Seasons 10 and 11 with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler in the house. I was skeptical about Tyler and Lopez joining the show, and ratings-wise my concerns proved to be justified, though I will admit that I thought each superstar brought new energy and enthusiasm to the program. Minaj and Carey appear to be offering something different. If nothing changes, the results are going to be painful to watch -- if people watch at all.