Big Changes Ahead on American Idol

The producers of American Idol and lead judge Simon Cowell have been releasing information about the coming season, describing format changes and (as is typical) talking up the level of talent on hand. But while Fox would prefer that everyone at Idol hype in harmony, Paula Abdul is again striking a discordant note.

Abdul's grievances against the show were aired last week on Barbara Walters' radio show, during which she claimed that Idol producers knew that Season Five auditioner Paula Goodspeed, who committed suicide near Paula's home in November, had been stalking her, but invited her on the show anyway because they felt that Abdul's discomfort along with the chance to belittle the talentless Goodspeed would make for the proverbial "good television." She also intimated to Walters that her contract was the only thing keeping her on Idol, and accused Cowell of deliberately distracting her on the air in order to make her look strange.

For someone associated with a hit TV show to come out and say that the show's producers are indifferent to her personal safety is unusual, but there is widespread speculation that Abdul is trying to guilt Idol into offering her a lucrative new contract, as her current one expires following this season (that the show has added a new female judge is, of course, completely unrelated to any possibility that Abdul might leave). On the other hand, Paula blasting Cowell for his behavior is par for the course. But Idol is in uncharted waters from a public relations standpoint when it comes to the Goodspeed suicide, and Abdul has come out of the tragedy looking like a sympathetic figure.

Cowell appeared on a preseason conference call this week, during which Abdul's latest charges were among the topics addressed. While he was careful not to directly challenge Paula, Cowell said no judge would ever be in danger from an auditioner, citing seven security guards who are always on hand off camera, and said that a taping could be paused at any time if a judge had a concern about someone.

Cowell defended Idol producers against the charge that they exploited an auditioner they knew to be seriously disturbed: "These guys have the utmost integrity as human beings," he said, adding "my regret in all this is that we didn't know how troubled [Goodspeed] was." For some reason, however, Cowell challenged the depiction of Goodspeed as a stalker, saying that "fan" would be a more accurate word for her.

Cowell also dealt with the tweaks to the Idol format that were officially unveiled earlier in the week. The numerous changes have the net effect of making Idol look more like the show as it existed for its first three seasons. The auditions, which many fans believed had become cliched and terribly bloated, have been reduced from four to three weeks; and the Hollywood round, which had been de-emphasized in recent years and was dispensed with last season in one night, will now cover two whole weeks. 36 singers will make the semifinals, up from 24 in the past three seasons, but only nine of the twelve finalists will be chosen by public vote. The other three will come from a wild card competition, with the judges getting to choose their favorites who were passed over earlier.

The wild card was a part of Idol during its first three seasons; the best known singer kept alive by its use was Clay Aiken. The reason given for the show abandoning the original semifinal format in Season Four was that the best singers were kept offstage too long: Performers would sing only once in a four-week stretch, not enough time for viewers to bond. And in fact, ratings for Idol rose in Seasons Four and Five after the new semifinal format was introduced. But with ratings sliding the past two years, the producers now seem to feel a return to the old system might work wonders. The spin now is that viewers have gotten bored by seeing the same singers every week.

Implicit in the return of the wild card is the belief that the American people, whose votes have been solely responsible for picking finalists the last four years, are not doing as good a job as the show would like. Cowell suggested that more recent contestants are too self-censoring and unwilling to spar with the judges, but this sort of backtalk has typically been seen as a turnoff to voters. One can assume that the judges will be using their wild card powers to select contestants who are a bit edgier. "I think personality is as important as talent on a show like this," Cowell said.

My own thoughts on these changes: The reduction in the hours devoted to auditions and the increase in Hollywood time is a positive. For starters, everyone in Hollywood has at least some talent. More importantly, Hollywood is typically the place where storylines can begin to be woven, and where viewers can start the bonding process. More problematic is the change in the semifinal round. This is the first time that Idol has acted to reduce the input of home voters in moving contestants forward, and I suspect that isn't going to go over well.

Also, the Seasons Four through Seven semifinals were significant in offering less publicized contestants, like Bo Bice and Elliott Yamin, a chance to build a reputation and win over voters who had hardly seen them before. Last season, the top twelve men and women only had to be in the top ten in voting to advance to the next week. Now, a semifinalist has to be in the top three to be assured of getting to the final round, and one's chances with the wild card are slim. I am confident in saying that Yamin, as talented a male singer as Idol has ever had, would likely not have made it past one semifinal week had this format existed in Season Five.

Cowell and the Idol producers claim they aren't alarmed by the waning ratings for the past two seasons, and as long as Idol is easily the top-rated show on television, there's no reason they should be. But the many changes seem to reflect more than a little panic.