America Idol Returns: The Ritual of Humiliation Has Begun
You must know what you're going to get -- especially in these days of mega-media distractions -- but it can't be predictable. In TV, that structure comes from either the characters or the format; you check out Lost because you care about Jack, Sawyer, Hurley and the rest (for some reason, this is an idea producers forgot this season) you watch Deal or No Deal because you know the pretty models will hold up a case worth some shmoe's lifetime earnings. Or not.
And in TV these days, there's no ritual more powerful than American Idol.
You saw it in last night's debut episode, which followed the usual Idol formula of alternating car-crash awful losers with rough aspirants who might have the potential for greatness. See my blog buddy Sean Daly for his rules on how to win Idol.
By now, we know the drill: the losers are mostly attention-seeking eccentrics whose thirst for fame is bigger than their self-respect (nobody, no matter how self-deluded, expects to win American Idol by dressing like Rocky IV-era Apollo Creed and singing an Italian aria). The potentials have heart-tugging stories -- the blonde kid whose parents have tired of spending money on his show chorus competitions; the now-grown former crack baby who proclaimed "I'm the only person from my family to make something of themselves."
The judges also were mostly themselves, only more so. Randy Jackson, in particular, is so self-possesed he's convinced he can make '90s-era rap vernacular cool again. (does anybody say "Dawg" anymore who isn't telling a joke?) Jackson and Simon Cowell's lasciviousness in evaluating the female contestants is also quite tiring.
The guest judge in Minneapolis, Jewel, looked like she realized it was a bad idea to take this gig from the moment she sat between a sweaty, superficial Jackson and an out-to-lunch Paula Abdul. Cowell hasn't been shy about telling the press it was a bad idea to shoehorn another faded artist onto their panel, and judging by the limited impact Jewel has had so far, this looks like another spot-on analysis from Idol's resident BS eliminator.
And then there's Paula. Her representatives have been working overtime to convince the press she isn't as high as she seems everytime she walks in front of a camera. They insist its exhaustion and overwork. But I have interviewed Her Paula-ness twice in person in Los Angeles; once after an awards ceremony and once after an Idol press conference. Both times, she slurred her words, seemed to have a tough time following conversations around her and offered disjointed answers to simple questions.
She seemed under the influence of something -- then and now. Idol producers are doing her no favors by pretending she doesn't have a problem. And think of the ratings that might come from an on camera intervention! I'm just sayin'.
Given that the show is a billion-dolar lynchpin of Fox's schedule, the show's haphazard veneer is a bit of sham, anyway. Those of us who have watched the auditions know that every auditioner faces up to two rounds of performances before no-name producers before they get to the Holy Trinity (or, Fearsome Foursome, this season).
So the overly long segments featuring the woman who couldn't remember the words to Prince' Kiss (isn't that against the law in Minneapolis?) and the juggler who fell on his back, probably got through two rounds of auditions before they landed on camera.
That's the dichotomy that so infuriates many who audition. Idol looks for both the best contestants (a mix of strong visual look and vocal talent, usually) and the biggest freaks. Which means obviously awful singers get the nod ahead of more talented performers who might not be distinctive or promising enough.
The circus moves to Seattle tonight, where we can expect more spectacular train wrecks and -- hopefully -- more thrilling successes. In this ritual, Idol doesn't really start to matter until finalists are chosen, and we see what the field really looks like.
For now, its all about watching the car wrecks and savoring the humiliation. Let the feast of shame begin!
Will Tampa See A Fourth Hour of Today?
If the general manager of WFLA-Ch. 8 would only return my phone calls, I might be able to tell you whether our local NBC affiliate will carry the fourth hour of the Today show which is currently the worst-kept secret in the TV biz, now confirmed by NBC.
Unfortunately, Michael Pumo hasn't returned a phone call I've made to him since he took over at WFLA in April. Not sure why -- despite the Times' competition with corporate sister The Tampa Tribune, I've always enjoyed a pretty cordial relationship with the GMs at WFLA. Indeed, even the editors at the Tribune return my telephone calls when I'm working on a story. I know what Pumo looks like, because he stopped by the Media Talk webcast here.
So Mike, feel free to ring back. I won't bite.
(UPDATE: Michael Pumo sent me an email on Friday, Jan. 19, to respond to an email I sent him two days earlier. Here it is, in its entirety:
"We are not planning on running the 4th hour of today.
The question of whether WFLA will air today's fourth hour arises because it already has a profitable show, the pay-to-play chatfest Daytime, airing at 10 a.m. after a three-hour Today. So will WFLA risk damaging a profitable local show by moving it to 11 a.m. against the mega-popular game show the Price Is Right, or will they blow off the extra hour in favor of a boring talk show that makes more money?
My prediction: when the choice involves quality vs. profit, never bet against money in the local TV game.
-- The Horny Manatee immortalized by Conan O'Brien (and the St. Petersburg Times here) will chat live with fans after Thursday's Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Click here at 1:35 a.m. Thursday if you're interested (and if you're in front of a computer at 1:35 a.m., I gotta think chatting with a horny manatee is among the least troublesome things you can do)
-- Fearing they might get a performer who would actually challenge their sensibilities, the White House Correspondents' Association has chosen creaky impressionist Rich Little to headline their annual shmoozefest with government powerbrokers in April. Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert tore them a new one last year, satirizing their inability to challenge the White House on stuff like, oh, the run up to the war in Iraq.
--- Talk about an idea whose time came about five years ago: Jerry Springer sidekick/security dude Steve Wilkos is getting his own talk show, courtesy of NBC/Universal. (gotta admit, I didn't even know that Springer's show was still in production).
Of course, WTTA-Ch. 38 is airing it locally. Given that Rachael Ray's awful new show just got renewed for another season, it's hard to tell who's more desperate -- the syndicated TV industry or third-tier stations which have seen their usual staple of reruns and old movies migrate to DVD and online. Sigh.