"American Idol" has been around since 2002 and, at its peak, was a ratings juggernaut that could not be touched. So why, a decade later, is it looking like a rookie trying to keep up with the cool kids instead of the seasoned vet that it is?
Thursday's announcement that Steven Tyler was leaving the "Idol" judging table (and Jennifer Lopez's "Today" show hints that she would be following him out the door) means a complete reimagining of the show — again. Only this time, instead of being the only horse in the race like it was when Simon Cowell jumped ship two years ago, "Idol" is in a crowded sea of reality singing competitions that only seems to be getting more congested.
The good news: Starting from scratch allows "Idol" to come up with entirely unique ideas while also cherry-picking the elements that have worked best for the other shows. Here are five things Nigel Lythgoe and company need to think about moving forward:
There's no denying that much of the appeal of "The Voice" stems from its four superstar judges taking breaks from their in-demand careers to bicker amongst themselves and get teary-eyed over fresh-faced talent. This year, all four judges — Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo and Blake Shelton — were nominated for Grammys. Talk about relevance! "Idol" should seek out current talent instead of artists who were in the spotlight years prior (sorry, Paula). "X Factor" certainly took a page from the "Voice" playbook by snagging Britney Spears and Demi Lovato for season two.
Speaking of "X Factor," there's something about "mentors" vs. "judges" ... or a hybrid. Giving your panel a personal stake in the outcome of the competition instantly ups the commitment factor. We've been at "Idol" live shows in the past where the judges show up at the last second, talk during performances and run out of the auditorium every commercial break. Not exactly present. But if you mix a superstar ego with the chance of "winning" the competition by mentoring the eventual champ, the judges will be all ears. (According to Us Weekly, lone original judge Randy Jackson might go the mentor route next season, so "Idol" is already taking the hint.)
The most obvious difference between "Idol" and its new rivals is production value. "X Factor" and "The Voice" are providing backup dancers, elaborate sets, full bands — basically treating every performance like it's on an awards show. "Idol" needs to do away with the video backdrop of flames while a contestant sings "Heat Wave" and bring its contestants into the 21st century.
Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez did one thing very well: Making all the contestants feel like they were equally talented and never made any mistakes. Does that sound like good TV? We're not trying to make the singers cry or be mean for the sake of meanness, but they need to hear the truth. That equal-opportunity sugarcoating led to low votes for powerhouse singers like Pia Toscano and Jessica Sanchez because the "experts" weren't making it clear to the voters at home who was nailing it and who was just so-so.
This goes not just for the superstar judges, but also for the contestants. It's been a looong time since Kelly and Carrie were showered in confetti, and they're still leaving their lesser contemporaries in the dust as they release record-setting music. It's no coincidence that the caliber of finalists has gone down along with the judging. Simon Cowell told voters who was good and who wasn't, and they listened. Obviously you can't go find another Simon, but "Idol" needs to get that moral center back or it will no longer be the seasoned vet; it will be the canceled dinosaur.
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