Yesterday was a very interesting news cycle when it comes to one-time Fox juggernaut show American Idol. After seeing its lowest ratings ever last week, rumors began swirling, and reports began surfacing (beginning with The Wrap) claiming an inside scoop that all four judges were about to be fired, along with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. The reports further claimed that Season 13 will get an overhaul, including a fresh look and format, and a tightening of purse strings (translation: no multimillion dollar salaries for whoever would replace the four fired judges).
Not long after these unconfirmed reports surfaced, they were overshadowed by a more official-sounding report that Randy Jackson, Idol’s sole remaining original judge, would be stepping down from the judge’s panel—and this time, he means it.
What is that, exactly? “You can’t fire me, I quit!”???
Regardless of how many of these rumors are actually true (the Randy Jackson thing seems pretty credible), it cannot be denied that that times are tough for Fox TV’s biggest cash cow. Not only has the show seen consistently dropping ratings over the past several years—despite several attempts to overhaul it—but now viewers have a new favorite reality talent show to replace it, in the form of NBC’s The Voice, which now runs two seasons per year, competing directly with both American Idol and Simon Cowell’s X-Factor at different times of the year. And yet, Fox apparently is determined not to let go of the tired old dog just yet—even after Mr. “Yo, Dawg” himself is pulling the plug.
So why is American Idol suffering? And perhaps more importantly, why won’t Fox put it out of its misery?
As to the first question, I think there are several reasons why AI is losing its viewership:
- Americans are catching on to the “fake reality” of it. AI’s original popularity as a show was based on the notion that everyday unknowns could be “discovered”—the age-old Cinderella story for musical artists. But American Idol has so many applicants that they must go through several pre-screenings to be selected to audition for the judges—and when they deliberately put through bad, delusional or mentally ill contestants just to nab ratings, after awhile those cheap tricks simply don’t work on audiences anymore. They see through the façade.
- The show has become more about the drama between judges than the contestants. Sure, the early years of drama/tension between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul made things interesting, but the main focus of the show was to find and highlight the best performers. Nowadays, all we hear about is the dynamics between the judges, even to the point that AI seems to try to “fix” the panel with judges they think won’t get along (remember the “feud” between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey?).
- Viewers now have somewhere to go where things seem more on the level. While NBC’s The Voice has yet to have any winners/contestants who have achieved the level of fame/fortune as Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson or Daughtry, as a program, it has based its whole approach on the integrity of the music itself, rather than on creating drama. The whole “blind audition” thing is especially appealing to viewers because the initial judging is on voice alone rather than appearance. The judges are called “coaches” and actually train and nurture the contestants rather than bash them for ratings. (Has anyone seen the segments where Usher is coaching? Dang, he’s good.) For that matter, what drama existed among the coaches seems to have disappeared with the “hiatus” of diva Christina Aguilera, and new coaches Usher and Shakira really seem to play well with others. In fact, the coaches act like they genuinely like and respect one another. The positive vibe seems to be playing well with viewers.
In short—American Idol has lost its way, while The Voice is finding its way and providing a positive alternative. It might not fit the formula of reality television (which seems to try and appeal to the worst in people), but the whole making-it-about-the-music thing seems to be working, because it feels more real. It turns out Americans like it when promising musicians are trained and encouraged. As a result, The Voice is seeing its highest ratings ever, while Idol is seeing its worst.
So…why isn’t Fox getting the message? Why would there even be a Season 13? One reason: money.
For all its problems, American Idol is still Fox Television’s biggest income generator (though that may change if things don’t turn around soon). When the network took on Simon Cowell’s new competing series The X-Factor, it was widely believed this program would replace Idol as Fox’s new baby; but it has been plagued with similar celebrity-judge drama, and it has produced disappointing returns in its two seasons. So rather than lose their biggest cash cow, the execs at Fox seem bent on continuing to tweak Idol, trying to revamp it year after year in the hope that it will once again be the biggest show on television.
But I gotta say it—if these shake-up reports are true, the execs are starting to look a little desperate.
So what does all this mean? Are these the death knells for American Idol, or for reality talent shows in general, for that matter? Have these kinds of shows run their course? Time will certainly tell. But for American Idol and its kind to survive, it’s going to be critical to correctly read the pulse of the viewers. Reality talent continue to have some sense of appeal because unknown musicians like the idea that they could get discovered, and viewers like the idea of an underdog making it to the top. But American viewers are getting tired of “unreal” reality television; they are tired of contrived drama. I think for this entire genre of programming to survive, it’s going to have to come back to the one most important thing: the music.
The Voice is succeeding because it’s all about the music. American Idol could learn a lesson or two from them. Otherwise, Fox should do more than just an overhaul; they should pull the plug and try something else.