You Won't Recognize The New American Idol

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe continues to put his stamp on American Idol, the result being that the show that returns on January 12 will scarcely resemble the series that America has grown to love/hate these past nine years.

Over the period of the last few weeks, as the first commercials promoting Season 10 have aired (featuring several unnamed young people Fox will want us to get to know better before long), Lythgoe and company have been informing the audience of numerous changes ahead. The most apparent, even if it doesn't really affect the competition, is that Idol will no longer air in its familiar Tuesday/Wednesday time slots, but will instead now run on Wednesdays and Thursdays. This will remove the series from any direct competition with the other heavyweight of network reality, Dancing With the Stars, and also puts the show into the busiest (in terms of ratings) night of the TV week fulltime for the first time.

But more substantive changes have been made with the very format of Idol. Lythgoe first dropped the news that the semifinal round, which has varied in approach over the years but has typically resulted in the reduction of a top 24 to a final 12, has been completely eliminated. So much for the weeks that have often been invaluable in helping lesser-publicized contestants build a fanbase, and have featured many of the show's most memorable performances. Lythgoe's claim was that the semifinals are boring, a judgment many fans will disagree with (although the voters did a thoroughly miserable job in last season's semifinal round).

It originally appeared that this format change would leave a sizable hole in the middle of the season, but a spoiler feeding info to the anti-fan site Vote For The Worst has come up with some sketchy details of how the finalists will be chosen. The spoiler claims that fans will be able to vote online (at the AT&T website, not at fox.com or any Idol page) for their favorites among those who survive the "Hollywood round," who will all be featured in the various Hollywood episodes. The source says that viewers will choose 12 finalists themselves, but that three more will be picked by the judges and mentor Jimmy Iovine.

If the spoiler is correct, that would mean that fears that Lythgoe was aiming to reduce public input into the selection of finalists may have been misplaced, as fans would still be able to cast votes from among a wide range of possibilities. However, there might still be a danger of too many singers with a narrow range of appeal getting through to the finals – and no apparent means of adjusting for gender and other kinds of demographic balance beyond the wild card picks. This is an issue for a series whose last three champions have not only been very similar to one another, but represent a musical sensibility that hasn't produced many pop hits of late (and the early sales figures for the first post-victory CD of Season 9 champ Lee DeWyze have been both shockingly bad and totally predictable).

Speaking of Lee: In keeping with his oft-stated belief that recent versions of Idol have become too dominated by introverted singer-songwriter types with limited charisma, Lythgoe also said that contestants will be challenged to create a music video, learn to promote their brand, and work with backup singers and a band for an awards show-style performance. Think of any of Adam Lambert's television appearances since Idol, minus the sexual antics.

Those who want "authenticity" in their Idols won't like these developments much, and it's true that Lythgoe (and Simon Cowell before him) often come across as wishing the U.S. was more like Britain, which is notoriously friendly to cheesy pop stars and musical fads. But Idol can't survive as a hit series for much longer if it stops creating new stars in music, and over its last four seasons, only Lambert appears to have broken through in that fashion (and he still needs to pass the "second CD" test).

The new video and self-promotion requirements will increase the odds that Idol will produce a winner that can compete in the current pop landscape, which is all about packaging and not so much about whether or not someone can write their own music, play an instrument, or (in many cases) can even sing well.