American Idol has always leaned retro—with its tributes to Elvis, disco, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees—but it’s weird to see the singing competition turn into All About Eve. That’s been the main narrative of the show’s 12th season. Producers of the reality-TV juggernaut have neglected the contestants in favor of the story line about an established diva (Mariah Carey) protecting her crown from a feisty newcomer (Nicki Minaj). The dynamic played out, but unfortunately for Idol, there was a glitch. The younger siren who stole Mimi’s thunder wasn’t Nicki—it was Shakira, the new judge on NBC’s The Voice.
Last week, The Voice’s fourth season premiere debuted strong. It ranked as the No. 1 (Monday) and No. 2 (Tuesday) most watched show on television by the key 18-to-49 demographic, trouncing American Idol. The Mark Burnett series continued its ratings climb this week, with 13.6 million viewers tuning in for Tuesday's episode.
It’s not just that the new Idol is a sad failure—an average of 15.9 million viewers are still watching, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Update: Yikes! Only 11.48 million viewers watched Idol's Wednesday competition show this week.) It’s that The Voice is now the much better show. And Idol, the most watched series on television until 2011, is continuing its downward spiral into Law & Order territory. It’s currently ranked as the No. 6 show, behind NCIS, Sunday Night Football, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Person of Interest.
The ratings freefall can be attributed to a number of factors, but they all boil down to one—this is the worst season of American Idol yet. Here’s why:
When Idol premiered in June 2002, it was an original blend of Star Search and American Bandstand. But now there are so many imitators. It’s hard to get excited about anonymous 20-somethings belting their way to fame, when that’s the foundation of The X Factor, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and Duets. Still, that doesn’t mean Idol needs to fade away. It could have held its ground as the McDonald’s of singing competitions. The 10th season finished on a high note with Jennifer Lopez, who made the series spontaneous and fresh for at least another year after Simon Cowell quit.
2. Disastrous judging.
The real deal breaker with Idol this season is terrible chemistry on the judging panel. Carey and Minaj should be on a Bravo reality show together. They don’t even try to pretend to get along, refusing to make eye contact or speak. Keith Urban is so laid-back, he’d make a good surfing or drinking buddy—but as a judge, he almost lulls you to sleep. And perpetual table sitter Randy Jackson needs a new job. Compare that to The Voice, where it’s hard not to cheer at all the crazy antics inside those egg-shaped judges’ domes. Adam Levine and Blake Shelton toss off breezy one-liners. Usher and Shakira haven’t wasted any time adjusting to their new careers. He dances. She leaps up and hugs her new recruits. Mariah will sometimes refuse to participate in a standing ovation because her dresses are too tight.
3. Or maybe it’s Mimi’s fault.
It’s not clear, looking back, why Carey even signed up for American Idol. J. Lo desperately needed the career boost, but Mimi didn’t—she was a revelation in Precious. Carey was supposed to carry the new incarnation of Idol, a task she could have accomplished if she just cared more. But after her shouting spat with Minaj became public last summer, she has looked over it. She offers the contestants a lot of vague praise (“Darling, you know I love you always,” she said on Wednesday night’s show after a bad song) but lacks a personal connection. She should watch The Voice and try to channel Shakira’s warmth. To be fair, Minaj is really entertaining—she arrived late to a live TV taping and still outshined everybody else—but it’s not enough.
4. Bad themes.
Even though Idol is targeted to teens and tweens, it’s often built around songs you would find only on an octogenarian’s record player. This needs to stop. The theme nights for this latest season have all felt excruciating, an endless loop of wedding ballads sung by ghosts of Idol past like Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze. After 12 years, I have no desire to listen to two hours of Beatles karaoke ever again. I don’t want another disco, rock and roll, or Motown night with 73-year-old Smokey Robinson as the guest mentor. Was Justin Timberlake not available? How about Taylor Swift? Beyoncé? Ke$ha? Rihanna? Bruno Mars? Usher? Oh, wait.
5. Boring contestants.
There are only three singers on Idol this year who can actually sing. I won’t name them because I can’t remember their names.
The last time a female won American Idol (Jordin Sparks in 2007) was during George W. Bush’s presidency. The reason so many male singers have dominated Idol recently—David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips—is because that’s what the Idol fan base wants. The tween girls who exercise their right to nonstop texting have turned the competition into a prom-king race, stuffing their ballots for what Richard Rushfield calls the WGWG (White Guy With a Guitar). Even so, it seems as if Idol went out of its way this season to block that popular genre of singer. And it offered us such embarrassing male singers that only two of them remain. When a girl finally wins the show this season, it will feel like cheating.
7. Too much Idol!
Is there a reason for American Idol to run for two and a half hours every week? The show is so padded that contestants are singing random duets with each other in random configurations, forcing the long-winded judges to critique them twice. Idol could really use some fresher producing to bring it into this decade. It also needs better musical guests on its Thursday-night results shows. (Can’t Ryan Seacrest help with that?) It’s all so stale, it’s starting to look like a true shock of this season will be the acceptance of the inevitable. In a few years, there will be an America without American Idol.