“American Idol” is in trouble.
I know this because I asked some of the key executives about the show yesterday, and I didn’t find their answers encouraging.
The problem is that, fundamentally, they don’t understand why most of us watch the show.
For millions of us, what’s kept us coming back year-in and year-out can be reduced to two words; Simon Cowell.
He was the truth-teller with the wit of the Oscars: Wilde, Levant, Madison, and hosts Hope, Carson and Crystal.
And we loved Cowell because he told it like it was, his barbs memorable and engaging and as entertaining as if he were Dirty Harry asking some snotty, overly self-confident pop-star wannabe, “You need to ask yourself one question: ‘Do you feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?"
[Please note, that was Dirty Harry who enthralled millions of us. I don’t think a cop nicknamed Clean Harry, who followed all the rules, would have been the same box-office success.]
When I asked “Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe at the TV Critics Association tour in Pasadena how he saw the role of the judges this year, in light of the fact that Cowell is no longer on the show and neither Kara nor Ellen worked out as judges, he said, basically, that this will be the year of nice, not nasty.
"It’s about giving the right information to (the contestants) so they continue on their journey as an artist.” Lythgoe said. “It is a lot more about searching for that eventual winner than stopping people getting there.”
He added, "In the past, we may have been accused of putting barriers up against them or making glib remarks, rather than trying to help them through the whole process."
To paraphrase that famous song from “A Chorus Line”: Nice and kind? That ain’t it, kid. That ain’t it, kid.
Later, I asked “Idol” executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who is also the CEO of FremantleMedia North America, “Please name in order the top three things the audience looks to see from ‘Idol’.”
She said,” They are watching great talent. That’s the overriding thing. It’s about the kids–both their ability as singers and who they are, in terms of their personality and their performance style.”
“Number two, it has to be entertaining. I think what you’ll see from this new panel of judges is that they have fun, they are passionate, and they are entertaining.
“Those are the big things. The third thing is that we have to find a way for the kids to let their personalities out.”
Hmm. I tried a more direct route. “How would you rate Simon’s importance when he was on the show, and now that he’s not going to be on the show?”
Frot-Coutaz replied, “That’s a really interesting question. I don’t have a crystal ball. Television is about formats and it’s about on-air talent. If you look at other examples in the history of television, for example when Bob Barker retired from ‘Price Is Right,’ there was a huge succession planning exercise. And it’s been successful. Drew Carey is doing incredibly well and the show is back up in ratings to where it was before.
“With ‘Idol’ I think we’ve done a really good job of finding people who are very different from Simon. None of them are like Simon, none of them can be compared to Simon.”
I interrupted her and asked, “Was that deliberate? You could have tried to find someone who you thought was like Simon.”
She answered, “It was completely deliberate. If you do that you get very paralyzed very quickly. Then you are looking for somebody who is like him, and nobody is going to quite compare.
“What you have to do is say, ‘What’s the show about? What are we trying to achieve?’ Going back to your first question, from a process standpoint, let’s just find people who are good pickers of talent. Let’s just find people who are passionate about music, passionate about talent. Who have the right eye and the right ear to find the right American Idol.”
Listen, I have nothing but respect for Lythgoe and Frot-Coutaz. They are clearly smart, talented people.
But so are a lot of the folks over at NBC (stop your snickering, they really are) who decided to put Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. That was a wrong move, a train wreck that many of us could see coming.
So is this.
Yes, the contestants on the show are clearly an important factor on "Idol."
But let’s look at the one previously unknown singer who most captured the attention of the public in recent years. Hands down, it’s Susan Boyle, who wasn’t on "Idol," but was on “Britain’s Got Talent,” which also features Cowell as a judge.
Boyle immediately captured millions of hearts worldwide with that expertly edited video showing this frumpy, middle-aged woman getting laughed at and disrespected by Cowell, who then stunned everyone when she opened her mouth and out came the sound of the most melodic of sea nymphs, a mythical siren moving us to tears.
She continued her hold on us as we watched her overnight celebrity break her down, and we then watched her struggle with recovery.
That’s a reality show story and a half, and good luck to ‘Idol’ in trying to find a contestant that compelling.
Much easier, I would have thought, to find at least one compelling judge to hold our attention.
I don’t think Jennifer Lopez is that person.
Steven Tyler might be.
But an impediment is that they are both performers and can identify with the contestants who are trying to break through, which can lead to the kind of judging that finds something to praise in almost every performance.
One of the reasons Simon could be so brutally honest is because he’s a producer, and not a singer.
I find it fascinating that the producers of ‘Idol’ so deliberately ran away from trying to find the next Simon for “Idol.”
The producers can’t control who tries out for the show to become the next “Idol.” But they–along with Fox–do have control over who they pick as judges.
If I were producing the show I would have thought to myself, OK, we’re losing the person who is drawing millions and millions to this show. In Frot-Coutaz’s way of processing things, it was like losing Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.”
Thus I would have tried to find someone who could be as compelling as the person I was losing. Not a carbon-copy, of course, but certainly someone who could wear the same T-shirt, who could be as acerbic yet spot-on candid, despite the boos the audience will shout. And someone who didn’t have the word pitchy in his or her vocabulary. (By the way, was Cowell on "Idol" actually that different than Joan Rivers with a music background?)
Instead, the thinking at "Idol" seemed to be, let’s make sure we find judges who can be nice, namby-pamby mentors who will make all the contestants feel good about themselves.
Oh yeah, that’s gripping television.#