Everyone knew the past Idol season would be dramatic… but there was even more drama and news than anyone thought possible. Paula leaving, Simon declaring this is his last year, Ellen joining the team… turnover is a wee bit high at the Idol judges panel. (It’s not a good sign, though, that in a show that’s supposed to be about a competition and contestants, all of the news was about the judges. Tsk.)
No Need For Panic: The biggest news to emerge out of the Idol offseason was, easily, Simon’s departure. By the time it was announced it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, but that didn’t make the reaction of the Idolsphere…. well, interesting is the word I’d use. Conventional wisdom was that Idol was, essentially, dead – or on life support – without Simon. Of course, I’ve never been a big believer in conventional wisdom. If anything, in Idol-land, conventional wisdom has a pretty bad track record.
So, is Idol dead without Simon? In the short-term, the answer is: no. Remember: despite what TPTB think, people don’t tune in to Idol for the personalities of the judges. (They may well do that for the audition shows, but by the time the actual Idol season starts – i.e., when people can actually start voting – they don’t.) True, Simon Cowell’s biting commentary may have put Idol on the map so many years ago, but shockingly, in a show that’s about music, people tune in for the music.
The problem down the road isn’t so much Simon leaving; it’s X-Factor coming into the picture. I’m not convinced there’s room in the American TV market for both Idol and X-Factor. For all of the differences – and they are significant – both shows will fundamentally be poaching on the same grounds. Sure, they’re not going head to head, but even the biggest fan of Idol-type shows can only take so much in a year. Fox is essentially gambling that there’s room for both Idol and X-Factor in American audiences without one weakening the other, and I don’t think that’s a smart bet.
Everyone knows that X-Factor has been a huge success on the other side of the Atlantic, but I’m not convinced it will actually take be a mega-hit in America. For one, we’ve been through X-Factor Lite on Idol for the past two seasons. The reception has been… mixed would be the kindest word I’d use; downright hostile might be more accurate. Sure, the star power of Simon Cowell and whoever he brings into X-Factor will give it a pretty good start. It might even have a stellar first season.
The bigger question is sustainability – will it be a relatively long-lived franchise like Idol, or will it flame out relatively early in its life, like The Apprentice? Keep in mind that expectations for X-Factor are quite high, and therefore merely winning its timeslot will not be sufficient. It has to be a hit overall, and even if it does well in its first season I can’t see the kind of success lasting for very long. Fundamentally, the last two years of X-Factor Lite has not led me to believe that the full-fledged X-Factor experience will be well-received, and while the star power of Simon Cowell may have some relative short-term appeal, it’s not a good foundation for success.
The New Foursome/Threesome: The jury is still out on Ellen DeGeneres as an Idol judge, largely because we haven’t actually seen her judging. (Carefully edited snippets from Hollywood week do not count.) Sure, she’s an upgrade from Paula, but anyone with a command of English – and their emotions – would be. The real test will really come when the show actually starts broadcasting live, and we all find out if Ellen can get here thoughts in quickly, which was something Paula rarely, if ever, could pull off. Just as important will be the chemistry the judges have – or won’t have, depending on how things work out.
It’s probably a little too early to speculate who’ll replace Simon next year. A lot depends on how the panel works this year. In an ideal world, there’d be no replacement. Simon’s shoes are going to be hard to fill in any case, and any replacement would not be given a fair shake. With both Kara and Randy on the panel, there’s enough Experienced Music Industry Professionals that they don’t really need to add one.
And Now, The Show Itself: There’s been so much news about the judges and the other “backstage” components of Idol that relatively little attention has been paid to the changes in the competition part of the show itself. In any other year, they’d be receiving top billing.
The first of two big changes is really less of a change, and more of undoing bad changes made a year ago: we’re returning to the Top 24 format and discarding last year’s flirtation with the group format. It’s an acknowledgment of how big a failure Season Eight was–and, frankly speaking, it’s the least they could have done. I’d have preferred that they announced they were tossing the Judges’ Save as well, but no word on that has been announced as far as I know.
The other big chance is more significant: up until last year, Idol had done its damnest to pretend the rest of the Internet outside of Americanidol.com didn’t exist. No more. Now, all the Top 24 will have official Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace accounts where their fans can follow and support them.
You’d think I’d view it as a significant development, that Idol is finally embracing the Internet, etcetera, etcetera. Not so fast. I smell the faint smell of Astroturf in this development.
Let’s be honest: do I think that it will actually be the contestants themselves who’ll be handling the accounts? No. I have zero confidence that’ll be the case. Given how busy they already are in any given week I can’t see how they’ll find the time to do such things anyway. The Twitter accounts might well be the most “real” – there’s not a lot of time and effort needed to do that – but I have more doubts about Facebook and MySpace.
The suspicious minded half of me thinks the control freak part of 19E is still at work. What I said last year still holds: with contestants and would-be fans wary of 19E manipulation, they’re trying as hard as they can to build their fanbase outside of the show itself. Setting up “official” social networking accounts might strike someone as a good way of co-opting the Idolsphere at large, which (as we saw last year) is not a big fan of 19E right now.
It remains to see how the “official” Idolsphere (as I think of these 19E-created sites) and the long-standing unofficial Idolsphere will get along. It’ll be something to keep an eye on, and for the Idol analysts like me it’ll be another tea leaf to read. But game-changing? No, not quite.
On Probation: Over the years I’ve written quite a few kilometric blog posts – columns, really. This preseason roundup is not one of them. According to WordPress’s nifty little word counter, it’s only about half my preseason roundup from last year. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, it’s about time, Leo! You’re not paid by the word, get on with it!
There’s a bigger reason, though. One I’m sure is not alone in the Idolsphere. Season Eight took a lot out of my writing batteries – and, to be honest, our enthusiasm for Season Nine as well. Suffice to say that I’m entering this season with, at best, a guarded eye.
On the other hand, though, there is some cause for optimism. As my friends at WNTS noted, the Idol preseason (which the whole audition and Hollywood episodes are) have been largely free of the blatant favoritism of last year. True, there’s been healthy amounts of largely unneeded drama, but that’s not going to go away.
Still, miracle of miracles, it seems like 19E might actually have learned something from last year. After all, the old adage says nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a good hanging. And, frankly, had the Idolsphere had its way last year the gallows would have been ready for quite a few hangings.
After last year, frankly, 19E – and this season of Idol – are on probation. We all have to see that 19E has cleaned up their act, that they really are doing what we’ve wanted all along: run a fair competition. That’s all. If they do that, then we’ll give them the praise they deserve. If they don’t, well… we’ll have to see.
This could be the season that decides the long-term future of American Idol as a franchise. Whatever happens, well… it’s not going to be a boring ride. Life in the Idolsphere rarely is.