My NPR adventure: Can Nicki Minaj save American Idol from its own crushing formula?
The numbers are in, and they don't look great for America's most-watched TV singing competition.
American Idol seems in the process of sliding from pop culture juggernaut to popular reality TV show -- the same road CBS' Survivor traveled years before. And the brain trust at the Fox network has been working overtime to try and keep that sad inevitability from coming to pass.
Last week, ABC's Modern Family and A&E's Duck Dynasty notched ratings near or above that night's Idol episode among the young viewers advertisers covet. And as live episodes begin tonight, fans and foes alike are asking if it is possible for the reality show that built a network to get it's mojo back.
My NPR commentary this week centers on new judge Nicki Minaj and my opinion that her instincts highlight where Idol needs to go if it wants to reclaim past glory. I wrote a similar version for today's Tampa Bay Times, published on the day that Idol begins airing live episodes, turning the voting over to its audience members.
Idol's biggest problem in recent years has been that its audience's tastes have diverged from what tops the charts and dominates pop culture in the music world. You can argue that last year's winner Phillip Phillips evokes a Mumford and Sons style and note that 2011 winner Scotty McCreery did earn platinum record after years of Idol victors struggling to sell units.
But when you think of the artists who command magazine covers, endosement deals, large scale gigs like the Super Bowl and more -- the currency of pop star status -- you don't think of the kind of artists who have been winning Idol lately. You think of old winners, like Super Bowl anthem singer Kelly Clarkson, or never-winners like Oscar honoree and performer Jennifer Hudson.
And that's where Minaj can come in, pushing Idol's judges and audience to get past its own formulas to find a new kind of winner. Her onsceen fights with fellow new judge Mariah Carey sometimes feel like the fights between Idol's mainstream audience and the hipsters who made Minaj's Super Bass a monster hit.
Minaj understands the modern rhythms of reality TV and pop music. And she's walking a lonely road, challenging a competition whose most ardent fans have locked it on a path toward smaller ratings and less relevance.
Regardless of who wins that battle, it's likely to offer some compelling live television to come.
Check out the NPR piece below: