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Here's one way American Idol can win back fans: End the show on time

Bowersox-guitar At times this year, it feels as if American Idol is on the verge of spinning off into oblivion, fueled by its own erratic disregard for both the contestants and the fans.

And there may be no better example of that trend that an annoying problem that a live show with nearly ten years of history should not be having now:

Running too long

Over the last two weeks, viewers have seen just one edition of the popular unscripted singing competition end when it was supposed to — with last Tuesday's episode running a couple of minutes over and April 21's blockbuster Idol Gives Back fundraiser landing a whopping 24 minutes long (viewers, at least, were warned about this overrun, though not told it might go nearly a half hour overtime).

The reason why anyone should care when Idol's messy, seat-of-the-pants shows conclude? Three letters: DVR.

Tuesdays are already a minefield for TV fans, with a serious logjam of popular shows — from NBC's Biggest Loser and CBS's two NCIS shows to ABC's Dancing with the Stars and Lost and Fox's Idol.

Saving some shows with a digital video recorder becomes the only way to keep up — something Idol turns into a nightmare with its disregard for watching the clock.

Glee Never mind missing important Idol moments; overruns also back up the network's overall schedule, pushing back fan favorite Glee just far enough that DVRed episodes may be missing part of the last (and, often the best!) musical number -- including a Kristin Chenoweth performance last week and the big closing number for the show's Madonna homage, Like a Prayer, the week before.

Wonder what's going to get snipped off tonight? And perhaps that's exactly the point.

Given the punctuality of other live shows — notably rival Dancing with the Stars — some fans fear these overruns are a deliberate effort to discourage people from recording the program at all. After all, one benefit of watching a recording is skipping the endless commercials and product placement stuff.

This isn't new for TV networks. Already, some shows have staggered start times, beginning one or two minutes after the hour, to make it tough for fans to record shows on other networks. And some cable networks even vary the lengths and placement of breaks to prod viewers into paying a little more attention as they fast forward through recorded shows.

Oprah I wrote about some of this craziness last year, when I discovered everything from Oprah to Heroes to Late Show with David Letterman was not recording the way it should -- usually because broadcasters weren't updating their schedules correctly with the company that tells DVRs across the country when shows begin and end.

Regarding Idol's problems, rumors blame the arrogance of the show's producers, accused of refusing to rein in the show. Fox publicists e-mailed this statement: "While the producers always aim to end the show on time, American Idol is a live performance show and as with all live programming, there are unpredictable elements that affect running time."

But a report released last week by the Nielsen Co. indicates 34 percent of TV homes now have DVRs; last year, more than 60 percent of homes with incomes above $100,000 annually had them. Which means Idol, already losing popular judge Simon Cowell and its razor-sharp band after this season ends, might not want to tick off fans anymore than they must.

I have a feeling, sometime soon, they're going to need a little audience goodwill.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:07pm]


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