Fox's slumping `American Idol' tries to get back in tune
"American Idol," television's ratings juggernaut, returns this week, on a slightly sour note.
For the first time, there are signs the nation's infatuation with the annual distraction may be cooling.
Ratings dipped last season. Record sales from the most recent crop of finalists have been disappointing. Last year's concert tour failed to sell out in some cities. And two former winners, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, have lost their recording contracts.
Taken together, the indicators may signal that the show's heady growth days may be fading. But as a franchise, "American Idol" remains rock-solid.
Even in the off-year of 2007, it was by far television's No. 1 prime-time series. And even though it weakened in the all-important 18-34 age range of viewers that advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach, it still posted young demographics that were a Madison Avenue dream.
Simon Cowell, the acerbic judge who became one of TV's best-known figures through the show, says it faltered last year because it just wasn't as good.
"It just wasn't one of our better seasons and you get that on all these types of competition shows," he said in a telephone conference call with reporters. "You get great years and not so great years."
Last season's crop of finalists - typified by the weak-throated but well-Mohawked Sanjaya Malakar - were widely considered to be deficient in appeal compared with the breakout personalities of other years like Hicks, Kellie Pickler, Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken.
This season, Cowell says, he and fellow judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson have been drawing more heavily on the kinds of quirky, upstart unknowns making waves on YouTube with their videos.
"It is younger. I think the talent is more current. They're more interesting as people. So I go into this season a lot more optimistic than I went in last year.
"I mean, Paula and Randy went on record last year saying `The bar has been raised' and all that nonsense and `This is going to be one of the best years.' I didn't go along with that. I didn't believe it, but I will go on record this year in saying it is one of the strongest lineups we've had."
Keeping the show fresh is a priority for Fox. Ratings fell by about 2 million viewers a week to 28 million last season.
This year, says executive producer Ken Warwick, there will be changes. Contestants will be allowed to play instruments and the number of guest mentors will be cut.
One week will be devoted again to the charity shows for "Idol Gives Back," which raised $75 million last year to fight poverty in the United States and Africa.
One factor that plays to "Idol's" advantage is the ongoing Hollywood writers' strike, which is drastically reducing the number of scripted dramas and comedies with fresh episodes.
Fox isn't saying who will make the final field of 24, but Southerners are likely to be well represented. Three auditions were held in the region - in Charleston, Atlanta and Miami.
Cowell admits that in the crush of contestants, some good ones probably get overlooked. But listening to 100 hopefuls a day is a grueling test for the judges.
"It is torture," he says.
Five questions for "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell:
Q. Does it surprise you that Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, two past winners, have been dropped from their recording contracts?
A. Based on their record sales, I'm not surprised. Chris Daughtry, who only came fourth, does amazing business last year. And then somebody like Ruben who we thought was one of our better competitors doesn't do as well as you want. It is the record business. It's unpredictable.
Q. There's been criticism of the judges for being cruel to auditioning singers. Are you guys just telling it like it is?
A. There are times when you watch the show back and hate yourself for what you said at the time and that's partly because you don't know the person's back story before they walk in the room. For all I know, their dog had died an hour ago and they're singing this in memory of the dog and I or anyone else is rude and when you see the whole story unfold it's horrible. I think at the end of the day, every person who comes on the show, they have seen "American Idol" before. I think they know what they're in store for if they're not a very good singer. Often we'll go in to meet them beforehand and say to them, "Look, if anybody's bothered by criticism, I wouldn't bother coming into the auditions," and they still come in. So they kind of know what to expect. I hope that most of what we say is meant as either constructive criticism or just being honest saying to people, "Don't give up your day job."
Q. Does good talent slip through the cracks during auditions?
A. I'm sure it does happen. You have to make a snapshot decision. It's not science. It's based on instincts and emotion. I think most importantly you're trying to second-guess what you think the public is going to like.
Q. Are people afraid of you because of your blunt persona?
A. They're very nice to mean people like me. I hope over the years that people realize I know what I'm talking about; and secondly, that it's actually more cruel to lie to someone or give them false expectations rather than tell them the truth.
Q. Was the franchise hurt by Sanjaya staying in so long?
A. I don't think it did any harm at all because he didn't win. There was a point halfway through when it did occur to me after some absolutely horrific performances and the public kept him in that we actually might have a problem. Now I look back and I laugh because he was harmless. He had a run. He had some fun. He was actually a very nice kid.
Tuesday (8-10 p.m.): Audition round, Philadelphia.
Wednesday (8-10 p.m.): Audition round, Dallas.
Jan. 22, 23, 29, Feb. 5-6 (8-9 p.m.): Audition rounds, locations to be announced.
Feb. 12 (8-10 p.m.): Hollywood round, Part 1.
Feb. 13 (8-9 p.m.): Hollywood round, Part 2 - top 24 semifinalists announced.
Feb. 19 (8-10 p.m.): Top 12 male singers perform.
Feb. 20 (8-10 p.m.): Top 12 female singers perform.
Feb. 21 (8-9 p.m.): First results show - two male and two female contestants voted off.
March 6 (8-9 p.m.): Top 12 finalists revealed.
Idol continues on a Tuesday-Wednesday schedule until the finale May 29.