01.11.10

American Idol at a Crossroads

Simon Cowell is a lame duck, Paula Abdul is gone, Ellen DeGeneres is arriving. Can Idol survive this upheaval? Richard Rushfield lists the show’s seven biggest challenges.

With Monday’s announcement that Simon Cowell will leave American Idol at the end of this season, television’s sole superpower suffers the biggest hit in its eight-year life span.

The conventional wisdom among American Idol watchers has always been après Cowell, le deluge. And that could very well be. But could Cowell’s departure also be an opportunity for renewal? Could Idol defy expectations to enter its second decade stronger than ever?

If it ever seems that the show is no longer reliably creating mega-stars, Idol could collapse quicker than an overcooked soufflé.

When the singing competition returns to the airwaves Tuesday, it does so as one of the last bastions of common culture left in the U.S. Movies, music, and cable TV play to niches: Only American Idol’s 26 million viewers reflect a spectrum of rich and poor, black and white, grandparents and teenagers.

The competition itself often plays out the show’s breadth: Last year’s finale was a showdown between an Arkansas prayer leader (Kris Allen) and a provocative, flamboyant singer (Adam Lambert), who, after the season ended, came out as gay on the cover of Rolling Stone.

View our coverage of American Idol Season 9
Why Simon is Quitting Idol
Asked to define the Idol viewership, Fox’s reality chief, Mike Darnell, said, “there is no defining it. It’s everyone.”

But Idol is clearly showing signs of battle fatigue. Last season was notably rocky, with its controversial format changes, up and down ratings, and weak results for the contestants’ post-show recording debuts.

And then there’s the little matter of those darn judges. Paula Abdul is out, Ellen DeGeneres is in. And Cowell is a lame duck.

This coming season will likely either mark a rejuvenation of a titan, or the first great lurch toward a death that even America’s one entertainment giant cannot avoid forever.

Here are Idol’s many rivers to cross:

1. The Judges

Eight years after its debut, Idol’s original judicial formula of one “expert” judge, one “nice” judge and one “mean” judge has been so widely imitated that it is hard to recall just how revolutionary it was then. In particular, the idea of the man who tells the truth was unheard of in prime-time television, where inoffensive niceties were the rule.

Well, eight years later, when that formula has become so fundamental to reality TV that it seems a basic building block of the universe, a wrecking ball has torn through the formula’s progenitor. What will be the alchemy of Cowell, Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, and Ellen DeGeneres this season? And then who will replace Cowell next season?

As dangerous as is the thought of sweeping the table clean, it is not as though anyone thought the Simon-Paula-Randy trio had been at the top of its game of late. For several seasons, in fact, the three of them seemed bored by the contest at hand, and Simon’s famous that “sounded like a cat falling off the Eiffel Tower” one-liners had become particularly creaky.

Worse still was last season, when DioGuardi was added. Then, the panel seemed actually to run amok, lost in their self-referential, self-obsessed banter.

If we are left with less of a judging panel to focus on after Cowell leaves, it could be Idol’s net gain.

2. Star-Making Ability

The Idol narrative is premised upon the transformation of an unknown dreamer from nowhere into a bona fide star, built to stand the test of time. At the end of each Idol season, the winner does not await a million-dollar check, or the dubious promise of romance, but the highest coin in our realm: genuine, honest-to-God stardom, sending the winner—and one or two others—down the path trod by the giants Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and Chris Daughtry, to name but a few.

The past few years, the show’s star-making record, however, has been decidedly mixed. Last year’s winner’s album by Kris Allen is off to the slowest start of any Idol victor’s yet. On the other side of the ledger, Season 8’s runner-up, Adam Lambert, is perhaps the most talked about, buzzed-over singer ever to emerge from the show.

Nonetheless, if it ever seems that the show is no longer reliably creating mega-stars, Idol could collapse quicker than an overcooked soufflé.

3. Robo-Singers

A consistent complaint about Idol over the past few seasons is that the contestants seem too pre-packaged and self-aware—that there are fewer naturals along the lines of a Clarkson from Season 1.

To some extent, this is an unfair criticism, due to the fact that recent contestants have had less screentime to flail around and be themselves. But, indeed, eight years in, Idol can never return to its garden of innocence.

Whereas Clarkson once lined up for an unheard of TV talent show, today’s auditioners have been watching Idol since they were children. They come to the show aware of the stakes and of the rules of the game, consciously modeling themselves on past Idol stars.

On the flip side, what they have lost in naiveté, they have gained in collective talent. Last year’s crew was likely the most talented group the show has seen. Does that increasing skill set make up for the diminishment of a rags-to-riches mythology?

That is the question at hand.

4. Idiosyncratic, Shifting Rules

Season 8 saw a flurry of new rules and set pieces introduced to shake up the show’s format. Some, such as the “judges’ save”—in which the judges, if they voted unanimously, could “save” a contestant the public had ousted—worked well, adding an extra level of drama to the results show.

Others, such as the Idol Mansion, seemed forced and inauthentic.

Will Season 9 draw on the best of last year’s innovations, discarding the rest? Or will they bring in more novelty, making the audience seasick from all the back and forth?

5. The Cultural Battlefield

Idol’s Big Tent has accommodated everyone from fundamentalist Christians to pop divas, but in an increasingly divided nation, will that spirit of friendly competition between the tribes stand?

6. The Tween Menace

Tweenage girls, with their unprecedented texting supremacy and undivided determination, are known to cast hundreds of votes for their favorite singers, making them the virtual dictators of American Idol. Inevitably, they vote almost exclusively for cute boy contestants, informing any female contestant with the slightest hint of edge that their services are not needed here.

In the past three seasons, of the six singers to make the finals, only one has been a woman. And that one, Jordin Sparks, who went on to win, thoroughly embodied non-threatening perkiness.

It is hard to see how any combination of voters could possibly defeat the tween bloc at the ballot box, but unless they are somehow reined in, Idol’s upper tiers are going to become very predictable, very soon.

7. Family Hour

While America’s harumphers are apt to decry Idol as the end of civilization, it is actually, the last stand of more genteel civilization of 1950s America.

Unlike its reality-TV brethren, Idol has no hair-pulling or bug eating, no confessional trashing of other cast members. Other than the harshness of Cowell’s critiques, the show remains very much the story of young singers getting on stage and trying to sing their hearts out as a path to their dreams.

In the years since Idol debuted, the territory around it has coarsened considerably. Cowell’s X Factor, which he will bring to America, emphasizes the catfights and humiliation angle far more than Idol.

And so the question remains. Does the American carnival still have room for such a simple pleasure as American Idol?

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.