[19 May 2008]
This time every spring, readers of newsprint across the land can expect to see those confident, can’t-miss lists of “Ways to Improve ` American Idol.’” “No Paula!” “New judges!” “Less predictability!” “Change the voting!” “Get rid of the early rounds!” “Better contestants!”
And so on. They’re terribly easy to write, require no thought, can be banged out between cups of coffee, and the consequences are almost nonexistent. Chances are, the producers aren’t even reading them anyway, so what’s the point?
There is none. Hence, no lists today.
Nevertheless, as the David vs. David finale ramps up for Tuesday night, the urgent question in television - or at least around a million watercoolers - is “what’s wrong with `Idol?’”
You hear it everywhere, and sort of like those lists, everyone’s got an unconvincing answer. Even Fox struggled to come up with one during a recent conference call with TV writers.
“I would say I’m satisfied creatively, but not necessarily with the performance of the show,” said Fox chief Peter Liguori, before adding a dash of network doublespeak. “This is a situation where every season we’re able to reset the table. I can share with you and assure you that the network and producers really want to take a look at the show next year and see what we can do to inject it with new levels of energy, new unexpected twists and turns, and greater levels of storytelling.”
But this presumes that Fox doesn’t go through that process every season. In fact it does, though the changes are often so negligible that they melt into the background before long. This season saw a new set, an expanded results show and the infusion of more experienced, professional or semiprofessional finalists. The seventh was more slickly packaged that any prior season.
Yet, some editions still saw viewership slide by as much as 10 percent. This, then, could lead to one inevitable conclusion: Maybe there’s nothing Fox can do to “reset” this sagging franchise.
Consider that hit shows are sort of like most people. They’re born, grow, thrive and then go into a long and inevitable decline. This is called (excuse the fancy word) entropy. It’s the law of both the universe and prime-time television. Nothing lasts forever, and even those few programs that do span generations (say, “60 Minutes” or “ER”) now mostly just creak and groan and occasionally squeak out, “me too!”
The law of prime-time entropy is accelerated for unscripted TV, which thrives on the urgency of “Did you see that last night?” After a while, you start to answer “Yeah, I did see that, and I think I saw it last season, too.”
“Idol’s” secret was - and remains - its multigenerational appeal. Here was that immensely rare cultural artifact that appealed to tweens and grannies alike. Imagine! Fox could count on grannies to tune in week after week. That’s what they do. Tweens are always another story: Their white-hot brain cells are constantly jostling for the next big thing. They fall in love and - once they’ve thoroughly absorbed the object of their affection - move on. (Plus, just how appealing would Usher or Leona Lewis or Amy Winehouse be if kids learned 50-year-olds were downloading them, too?)
Millions of them will vote, and millions will ultimately buy a David Cook or David Archuleta CD, just as they’re now doing with Jordin Sparks. But that does nothing to help the TV show franchise.
Finally, this. “Idol” simply is what it is. Radically change any one element and risk disenfranchising a segment of the fan base. Get rid of Paula? Fine - you deal with the millions who still love her. Inject “new levels of storytelling?” Great - but this smacks of overproducing, and viewers suspect there’s too much of that already.
“Idol” is bound up in a golden straitjacket; a guy named David will win Wednesday night, but, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter which one, does it?