Fixing American Idol: What's next now that the brutal Mariah/Minaj experiment is officially history?
Now that Mariah Carey has left the building – via a half-line reference in a tweet from her publicist – and Nicki Minaj has confirmed she’s outta here, the hard work begins for American Idol.
How to rescue a show once known as the most powerful brand on television?
The speed at which people have deserted this sinking ship is staggering. Fox reality TV guru Mike Darnell – who once told me many years ago he was confident the genre could even survive a death during a risky show – announced his departure from the network after 18 years on the Friday evening before Memorial Day weekend.
Longtime judge Randy Jackson had already revealed he was leaving, giving Carey precious little time to leverage Idol’s visibility to support her latest single. Her departure announcement came in a tweet from her publicist about her new tour, which read in part "@MariahCarey confirms world tour and says goodbye 2 Idol."
Minaj also tweeted thanks to Idol for a “life changing experience” while promising to “focus on the music.”
So. How to fix Idol now?
Like so many reality shows slipping from phenomenon to merely popular, Idol needs to choose between reaching for a new formula to pull back all the people who used to care about it or refocusing on its core audience.
The core audience matters. This past season seemed an example of the first choice: avoiding contestants who fit the “white guys with guitars” model Idol voters seem to love; offering a judges panel filled with new faces Carey, Minaj and Keith Urban; including two unpredictable divas likely to butt heads publicly. The result was finale ratings 40 percent lower than last year with the fewest viewers since the very first Idol finale in 2002.
Much as I’d like to see Idol suddenly morph into a better variety show, I suggest the program needs to refocus on its core audience, tweaking any changes to try drawing young viewers, who are currently fleeing the show in droves.
Judges with youth appeal needed. News that Jennifer Hudson, a current pop star and Idol alumnus, is likely to join the judges table is a good sign – she’s a connection to the show’s past and a new star. The other Idol alums rumored to be in contention, Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, are much less so. Hudson should be surrounded with similarly current pop stars who, most importantly, will play nice together (the Minaj/Carey feud got too bitter too quickly).
Stop monkeying with the contestants. By the time America could vote on contestants, no one who resembled the show’s WGWG model was anywhere near the competition and the guys seemed significantly outclassed by the women (as proof, note the show’s Top Five finalists this year were female; an Idol first). Time to balance the playing field, even if that means risking a repeat of past winners.
Start monkeying with the songs. Many more current hits are necessary. Fans have been complaining for years that the show’s theme nights and cover tunes are dated and too old school. Given the exodus of young viewers this season, laying out some cash for a deluge of current hits might be the quickest way to bring back young viewers.
But Idol’s biggest problem isn’t judges, contestants or music; it’s the times. Thanks to NBC’s The Voice and Fox’s Simon Cowell showcase The X Factor, Idol is no longer the unique pop culture phenomenon it once was, and young viewers have fled elsewere for more buzzed-about entertainment.
Which is why putting on a slightly more youthful face and making the hardcore fans happy might be the best strategy.
Because, no matter how hard we try, time weventually catches up with everyone…and every TV show.