Is Fox's 'American Idol' Suddenly Too Sweet For Its Own Good?

It should come as no surprise to anybody that ratings for this week's return of “American Idol” were down from the year before because -- wait for it -- we're talking about the thirteenth season of the show!

I'm not sure what kind of miracle would have to occur for a series as old as this one -- one that for much of its life towered well above every other show on television by a very wide margin, and one that for all of its life has remained stronger than almost every other show on television -- to reverse course and begin growing its audience again. I don't think that has ever happened in the history of long-running prime-time shows of any kind.

On the subject of “Idol,” Fox executives have talked for years now about “stopping the slide” and “winning back fans.” It's not likely that either will ever happen. “Slowing the slide” and “holding onto fans” should be satisfactory at this stage. If the show levels off and maintains respectable numbers in total viewers and certain demographic groups, it should be around for many more years, not as the supernova it once was but as a broadcast series that continues to be of significant importance to millions of Americans and still reliably generates old-fashioned water-cooler chat and new kinds of social media interaction.

“American Idol” may be down, but it's not out. One promising sign amid the predictable erosion reflected in its season premiere numbers is that it nevertheless outperformed its Season 12 finale, which suggests there is more interest in “Idol” this winter than there had been last spring. (In fact, the live-plus-same-day ratings among adults 18-49 for Wednesday's edition were up 24 percent from the show's Season 12 average, while those for total viewers were up 14 percent.) Certainly, some of that interest can be attributed to the return of the well-liked Jennifer Lopez to the judges’ table and the addition of Harry Connick, Jr. -- one of the most popular guest mentors in recent years. For that matter, people may be interested in checking back in now that Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Randy Jackson have checked out. (I tired of Jackson years ago, and from day one I couldn’t understand why Carey was even considered for a seat at the judges table, but I actually appreciated the energy and insight that the ferociously funky Minaj brought to the show.)

I feel the need here to note that despite the many bad decisions Fox and the previous “Idol” producers made last season -- which included having a pace-slowing four-judge panel despite the fact that four-judge panels had hurt the show in the past and thinking that tension between female judges was a good thing -- “Idol” in its 12th run gave us the best group of female singers overall in the show's history. The final competition night between Candice Glover (the eventual winner), Kree Harrison and Angie Miller was thrilling. So despite all the problems with the judges last season, one can make the argument that they did something right (even if they totally screwed the pooch when selecting male finalists).

Everyone connected to “Idol” this season has been making the point that it is going to be a kinder, gentler show that will stridently focus on the nurturing of truly talented young people while marginalizing or eliminating the nuttier contestants and any traces of the signature nastiness that Simon Cowell once brought to the franchise. In that respect, they hope, “Idol” will be more like NBC’s red-hot love fest “The Voice.”

My response to this is that the goofy singers (including William Hung, Sanjaya Malakar and many others) were more often than not disarmingly charming and proved to be humorous diversions in an otherwise straightforward and at times bland talent show. They helped to make “Idol” distinctive. Also, let’s not forget that “Idol” made an instant superstar out of the esteemed Mr. Cowell, a total unknown at the time of its premiere. Much of the unique pleasure to be had in watching “Idol” when it was a true pop-culture phenomenon came from enjoying those moments when Cowell would unreservedly put in their place self-impressed young people who had been raised to believe they were the center of all existence and could never do anything that wasn’t wonderful.

Apparently that’s all over now. Actually, that was over the moment Cowell departed and Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined the show. Both were endlessly sweet and supportive, but even then, Tyler’s wacky and unpredictable behavior gave the show a new kind of edge. Now, with Lopez, Connick and the returning Keith Urban taking control, “Idol” is all sweetness and light. Can a show of this kind thrive without an edge? The next few weeks will be enlightening. In the meantime, everyone involved with “Idol” should remember that even “The Voice” dials down the hearts and flowers now and then. It really comes alive when the judges -- who never say a bad word about any of the contestants -- take frisky shots at each other.

 

 

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