"American Idol" needs a lifeline. Already coming off a second down season in a row (with 2013 winner Candice Glover posting the weakest debut week ever by an "Idol" winner), season 13 of the former ratings champ has gotten off to a rough start.
Thankfully, after getting crushed on Thursday by the Winter Olympics and setting a new ratings low, "Idol" has a bit more breathing room on Wednesday night (February 26) when the top 13 will take the stage together for the first time.
When they do, things will feel real different, real fast.
In light of losing their 12-season voting partner AT&T, "Idol" has hooked up with Google and Facebook to radically change how viewers get behind their favorite contestants. Starting Wednesday, fans at home can vote during the show using Google search and Facebook rather than waiting until the credits roll.
And, in a clear bid to boost vote totals, they will also be able to vote up to 50 times per contestant, as opposed to just 50 times overall.
"I think 'Idol' is now constantly playing catch up and after 'X Factor' tried to be the leader of the pack by showing results in real time, people responded. I also think after years of complaints, 'Idol' realized transparency is not a bad thing," said Shirley Halperin, music editor at the Hollywood Reporter.
Plus, with ratings still drooping from previous highs, if the bid to get viewers more active works, Halperin said "Idol" producers might be able to brag that their audience is more engaged than that of rival "The Voice."
When viewers search "Idol"-related terms on Google and pick their favorite contestants they will be able to follow those singers, share their votes on Google+, join community conversations about them as well as "Idol" Google Hangouts.
The biggest change is the early voting window, which will use Facebook to post images of real-time voting trends on the East Coast, finally answering the prayers of "Idol" addicts who've long complained about the show's shrouded voting process. Now, they'll be able to see the singer rankings in real time and watch voting trends as the top 13 compete.
"AT&T introduced text voting, but now aligning with Google and Facebook is not a bad play if they're trying to move up to a more current brand," said Halperin, who also suspected the move was a way to stop the ratings bleed. "You're looking at an older audience base whose average age is around 55 and if they're grandparents watching with their young grandchildren who are savvy at Facebook and Google, the kids are there to explain it and bond with their grandparents. And, maybe those children bring the average age down. It seems complicated for an older audience, but there is a wisdom behind it."
Michael Slezak, senior editor at TVLine.com said that the beauty of the new system is that old school voters can still use their phones to weigh in if they want, while the more tech savvy can just point and click. "That way you don't risk upsetting the regular voting base who might not know how to use Google while giving an option to those who feel that speed dialing 50 times might be outmoded."
Plus, it's easier to just click your 50 votes in a few minutes versus spending two hours weighing in after the show. "It's a little scary to put all of the power into the hands of people who have two hours to devote to voting," he said. The ease of voting might also make the casual viewer more inclined to pick a favorite, and Slezak suspected that most people will pick their two or three at most, which might help the potential problem of diluting the voting pool.
Will it all help right the ship? Halperin wasn't sure, but she praised the new producers for trying to make some positive changes while there's still time. "There's an entire generation that has grown up and out of 'Idol,'" she said. "The key now is getting new fans and holding on to some of the old ones."