These are the awkward teen years for "American Idol." Still the most popular kid in class going into its seventh season, the TV talent show sprouted some unsightly blemishes last year, critics claim, and lost its focus by chasing after the cool kids and forgetting about its old friends, the contestants. And a series of ugly breakups has made it seem like the love affair with a handful of "Idol" alumni is, like, over.
It's hard to knock a show that has been #1, crushing anything in its path for a "Seinfeld"-like six seasons running. But the once-untouchable "Idol" juggernaut is, by the admission of its own producers and most famous host, due for some retooling. And it couldn't come at a better time, as two former "Idol" winners, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, recently announced splits from their Sony BMG label homes following disappointing album sales, and runner-up Katharine McPhee ended her major-label run after one poorly selling LP.
Which begs the question: Might the "Idol" engine finally be slowing down?
"I think it's a reflection on the unpredictability of the record business where, fortunately, we have it right more times than we have it wrong," judge Simon Cowell said of the string of dropped "Idol" stars. "But I've run a record label for 25 years, and the one thing I know about this business is it is horribly unpredictable. ... We are a reality show, and what happens at the end is also reality. You have to take the knocks with the good things."
But Cowell agreed with recent comments by co-producer Nigel Lythgoe that the show lost the plot a bit last season, when guest performances and mentoring sessions with stars ranging from Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez to Diana Ross and the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb overshadowed the back stories of the putative stars of the show, the contestants.
"If you had asked me, for instance, 'What do you know about the girl who won last year?' ...," said Cowell, who seemingly couldn't recall the name of strong-voiced but bland winner Jordin Sparks. "Other than the fact that she's a good singer, I couldn't really tell you, and I was a judge on the show.
"I think that was also the same with the people who watched the show at home," Cowell added. "We didn't let the audience at home know enough about where [the contestants] live, what their likes or dislikes were, because everything was about their chat with ... Diana Ross or J. Lo or whoever it was. I think this year there will be more focus on the contestants and less focus on the person who is mentoring them that particular week. It's a balance, and I think it's the right decision."
In addition to quibbles about the less-than-stellar talent pool in last year's top 12 — which Cowell also copped to — another complaint aired on a number of "Idol" blogs was the high quotient of back talk from finalists like Chris Sligh and Haley Scarnato.
One former "Idol" contestant who had her fair share of hard knocks on the show, season five's Mandisa, said she learned the value of turning the other cheek when under attack from Cowell, who made a series of unkind cracks about the ninth-place finisher's weight. But Mandisa, who went on to garner a Grammy nomination last year for her Christian-themed debut, True Beauty, also said a lesson this year's "Idol" finalists — and the stars who were recently dropped from major labels — should take to heart is that winning isn't everything.
"You don't have to win 'American Idol' to be successful," she said, adding that the scotched recording contracts are not proof the show is losing steam. "I think by winning there are such expectations placed on you that even if you're Taylor or Ruben and you go platinum as a new artist coming out that's huge, but because they were the winner, it's not enough." Hicks' self-titled major-label debut sold just over 700,000 copies, and Studdard's most recent album, The Return, has racked up less than 300,000. Meanwhile, one former "Idol" contestant who has fared much better — Chris Daughtry, whose group Daughtry has had multiplatinum success — recently let his thoughts about the show be known, telling RollingStone.com the "Idol" is "in a state of decline." After hitting ratings highs in season five, last season's lackluster group of finalists kept "Idol" at the top of the ratings heap, even as it suffered its first ratings decline to date, a slight 1 percent dip. The annual summer Idols Live Tour, however, was harder hit, reportedly plunging from 96 percent capacity in 2006 to just 68 percent last summer.
The early criticism from blogs like the popular VotefortheWorst.com about the upcoming season centers on speculation that producers are relying on a host of reality-show castoffs, failed major-label singers and others with a long history in a competition that has always positioned itself as the search for one of America's great undiscovered stars. Mandisa said such "casting" doesn't dilute the impact of the show. "I was a background singer and did studio work before I was on 'Idol,' and so did Melinda Doolittle, and it didn't prepare me at all for what it was like to be up front," she said. "The world saw the shock Melinda went through when she went from being in the back to the front."
The producers, as usual, will not discuss any of the finalists before the season starts. However, last month, a person using the online handle "JoesPlace" listed what they claimed were the names, ages, home cities and MySpace pages of this year's top 50 on IdolForums.com.
Dave Della Terza, founder of the Vote for the Worst site, said he thinks the program has definitely lost some of its juice. He pointed to last season's failure to tell viewers more about the contestants as a huge mistake. "You had Fergie on the show, but who is LaKisha?" he said of forth-place finisher LaKisha Jones. "People started to lose interest, and I'm glad they're saying they're going to combat that this year, but I think they're doing it by putting more professionals in."
Della Terza said he also complained last year that there were a number of finalists who made the top 24 who viewers either never got to know or who didn't get any screen time until they made it past Hollywood. "I think it's a mistake they make, and if we cared about all the people in the top 24, then we'd be more invested in the show."
Even with the major-label flameouts of Studdard, Hicks, McPhee and such finalists as Bo Bice, Mandisa thinks it's foolish to say "Idol" is on the downswing. "Look at the people on Broadway winning Oscars, Grammys, people on TV, touring the country and crossing into so many different areas," she said.
That sentiment was seconded by Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "The only way we can call 'American Idol' a failure now or at any time is if we assess it by an incredibly high bar," Thompson said. "After six years, any industry that would have generated the number of stars who've won Oscars, Grammys, Country Music Awards ... if there was any record label that in five and a half years had generated this amount of success, we would consider it an unbelievable, unprecedented success."
Thompson said the show has gone from being considered a "Star Search" rip-off to something a legend like Prince has appeared on, not to mention that it has spun off the Dick Clark of this generation, host Ryan Seacrest. "That being said, it is starting to sound a bit the same and repeat itself, and it won't go on for [years] like 'The Original Amateur Hour,' " he said.
"There will be a time in the not-so-distant future where the weekly broadcasts will not be the top two shows in the nation, but it won't be [this season]." If anything, Thompson said if "Idol" is to continue its success, it needs to confront the problem on the other side of the table: its judges.
"The problem now is all three of them are phoning in their responses," he said of Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. "The show lives or dies by the interaction between the judges and performers ... and it's what's made the show a stroke of genius. But if they wear out, and all three seem to be, when will they decide it's time for new judges? Unlike that old cliché about not fixing what's not broken, I think they have to fix it before it breaks."
One thing working in the show's favor this year is the ongoing writers' strike, according to Matt Roush, senior TV critic for TV Guide, which put the "Idol" judges and Seacrest on its most recent cover.
"I wouldn't write its obituary just yet," Roush said. "The season before last was a real peak, but especially with the schedule crippled by the writers' strike, there is an anticipation for something new, and I imagine the freak-show first episodes will come on like gangbusters because even people who don't watch the show watch those episodes. There's less competition and an open playing field. There's no reason to think it won't be #1."