This is becoming something of a familiar refrain. Doubts about the long-term survival of Idol, new judges, yet another round of changes… must be another Idol off-season.
To me, though, there seems to be a strong air of Idol In Name Only. To borrow a phrase from a certain tech CEO, Idol is supposed to be about the talent, the talent, the talent. And yet… most of the attention so far has been on the judges. That’s not what I watch Idol for. If I wanted to watch a show with four judges with rather large egos, I’d watch The Voice. If I wanted to watch an utter train wreck, that’s what X-Factor is for.
Some of the “changes” are not reassuring either. This “nomination” bit is pretty much a blatant ripoff of The Voice, and is a fine way to insert some wonderful pimped contestants and/or plants. It’s not necessary, and again, I don’t see the point. Is anybody complaining that the Audition Pimp Pieces weren’t enough?
In any case, my griping about the auditions aside, there are some meaningful changes to the format this year. The full details may be found here, but here’s the short version:
- Only 40 contestants will survive Hollywood week.
- In Las Vegas, the field will be cut in half again to 20 semifinalists.
- America votes for the top 10 finalists.
- At all stages, there is an even gender split.
The most interesting thing people should note right away: at all stages, this is a pretty drastic reduction in the number of people getting through. For comparison, last year 70 made it to Las Vegas. This reduction also makes the elevator episode unnecessary (with only one elimination in Las Vegas, as opposed to two last year).
If Idol were just about talent, then wouldn’t this mean we’d get better contestants right away? Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case. The semifinalists are likely to have the same mix of frontrunners. midcard, and… “novelty” contestants. Historically, contestants with a “good personality” can skate on that for a few weeks before people wake up and realize that they can’t sing. It is amazingly common for good contestants to be left behind in the semifinals in favor of more likable ones. For Season Nine, this was spectacularly obvious.
In a field of twelve finalists, this might not matter as much. However, with only ten finalists, this means that the potential impact is bigger. The gender split doesn’t help: if voting patterns hold and it’s weak girls leaving first, guys who got in on “personality” could go further than usual. I’m not saying this format is necessarily bad; of course it depends on who votes and the contestants themselves. It is fair to say, though, that it increases the risk of a foulup happening. This is very much a fingers-crossed-hope-they-know-what-they’re-doing moment.
Now, there are other changes being talked about. Revealing some vote numbers, regional statistics, all that. Now, the statistical geek in me who’d like to summon the spirit of Nate Silver and do all sorts of number manipulation is thrilled. The purist in me, though, is not particularly pleased. I approve of any change which, I think, will bring out the best in the contestants and improve the singing. These changes… don’t. If anything, this is the sort of addition that turns Idol into a circus and only annoys people like me. Is that still a majority of the Idol audience? Who knows.
In any case, with so much left in the season things could change drastically. But these changes in the format worry me. The judges, worst comes to worst, we can tune them out. (We’ve had plenty of practice.) But a bad format? Sadly, no, there’s no going around that. Things are going to get… interesting.