'American Idol' stands at a crossroads

Michael Lynche seems pretty relaxed for a guy blamed by some for bringing the biggest show on television to its knees.

Listen to some critics and they'll say the St. Petersburg native and his fellow American Idol contestants last year nearly sank the series, by being so boring and unexceptional they turned off fans and threatened Idol's status as TV's top performer. But, with the trademark mix of confidence and patience that led him to a fourth-place finish, Lynche suggested another explanation.

Amid angst over the departure of star Simon Cowell and strife among all the judges, the show forgot to concentrate on its most important component: the contestants striving for stardom.

"You would catch (the judges) looking off to one side, and there was this (question) of, 'Are they really focused on what I'm doing right now?'?" said Lynche, calling from his New York home. "You've got to keep the focus on kids trying to find their dreams, instead of what kind of relationship the judges have or what can you say next that's going to be funny."

If it's any consolation to Lynche, every producer and star who works on American Idol is about to feel his pain.

Because, when Idol returns this week, it will be unveiling a host of changes so extensive, producers are claiming it might as well be considered an entirely different show.

"It will, hopefully, be a little bit of circus," joked host Ryan Seacrest during a news conference last week. "Simon and I had our banter, but this is a whole different dynamic."

What is 'Idol'?

Cowell, who veered between disconnected boredom and cranky impatience last year, is gone — off to build his new empire on an American version of his British Idol rip-off, The X Factor along with perpetually alienated judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi.

Instead, pop star Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler have stepped up, in a bold effort to counter Cowell's cynicism and charisma with star power and supportive tones.

There's a new band (former bandleader Ricky Minor took the old one for Jay Leno's Tonight Show), new talent mentor (Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, making sure Idol's new record company gets the best artist possible), new age limit (dropped to 15 years old) and a new schedule (a Las Vegas round on the stage of Cirque du Soleil's Beatles tribute Love).

All of a sudden, the minds behind Idol are the ones with the most to prove. And they have a single goal: turning American Idol into a starmaking machine once again.

"It's now been five years since they've produced a major recording star . . . and that was the promise of American Idol," said Richard Rushfield, who has covered Idol for the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast website, producing a new book on the show's history, American Idol: The Untold Story.

"You have a lot of people watching the show . . . who don't connect that with buying albums, which was always the point of the show," he said. "They've been picking the winner for reasons other than the music."

Much of the struggle to revamp the show has played out in public, as the various components of the Idol machine — owner 19 Entertainment, the Fox network, the 20th Century Fox studio, TV distributor Fremantle Media and record company Interscope/Geffen/A&M — fought over their preferred fixes and floated various leaks to the media.

Dogged by the notion that decisions to add DioGuardi and DeGeneres were too impulsive, recent changes have surfaced slowly, with the full schedule announced just last week.

Rushfield's book unearths a slew of juicy tidbits, including the way producer Simon Fuller developed the first version of the show, Britain's Pop Idol, after he was dropped as manager of the Spice Girls; rumors that judge Paula Abdul secretly hired a ghostwriter to help her craft comments for the show; Abdul's erratic backstage behavior, gigantic entourages and relatively low per season pay ($1.9 million) compared to Cowell ($39 million); and how Abdul, Cowell and Randy Jackson gave DioGuardi a cold shoulder when she first joined the show.

More than gossip, Rushfield's history reveals an odd truth about Idol: Its biggest challenges often come from its greatest advantages.

Developed to mimic on television the process of discovering a pop star, it has instead bridged the transformation from old-school show business to the new now, where consumers choose everything online and no one buys albums anymore. The explosion of texting among tween girls means the show's winners have increasingly been attractive, unassuming white-guy guitar players who struggle to keep the spotlight after leaving the series.

The viewer voting that bonds fans so tightly to the show also bars producers from weeding out lackluster contestants. The army of websites that keep America talking Idol also provide an endless source of surprise-busting scoops and, in the case of heralded site Vote for the Worst, encourage haters to actively undermine the contest.

"On the one hand, American Idol has brought democracy into prime time; you're turning over the controls of the show to the audience," said Rushfield. "But Idol is more the end of something. Idol is the last show on television watched by the entire family . . . where everybody watches a show and talks about it the next day. It's sad to think Idol may be the last of that."

Will fans buy it?

Just finished with a touring production of Dreamgirls, working on an album and sorting through new acting opportunities, Sarasota-raised Syesha Mercado knows placing third in Idol's seventh season opened doors that might never have budged otherwise.

Still, she wonders if Idol's fans will respond to the new judging panel, which walks away from the classic "lightning in a bottle" chemistry of Abdul, Cowell and Jackson. News that the new guys are less caustic than Cowell left Mercado musing whether the revamp has somehow avoided what made Idol compelling in the first place.

"When you have to deal with a Simon-type character it can make you nervous, but it makes for better TV," said Mercado, who said she still recalls criticisms from the show that help her performances, years after her run ended in 2008. "In every TV show there's always the bad guy; if you don't have that on the panel, I'm not sure how that plays out."

Her advice to the young singers heading for the arena this year? Be yourself. "More than any judge or fan, you know what you're capable of," she added.

Lynche, now filming and shopping around a reality TV show based on his post-Idol life, agreed with Mercado. "I really felt for some of the younger ones on the show, like Katie Stevens and Aaron Kelly, who got brutalized for song choices because they were young," he said. "Who knows what they are at 16 years old? And now they will be even younger."

Both Mercado and Lynche acknowledged it can be a shock when Idol's owner 19 Entertainment declines to offer a record or management deal (which neither received). In an instant, usually after the Idols Live concert tour is done, the coterie of handlers and assistants who helped manage your life are gone.

"Idol is like boot camp; they give you all the keys and it's up to you to learn those lessons," said Lynche. "(Afterwards), it takes time to heal yourself and get your confidence back. You don't ever regret doing it, but it takes time to get back to being yourself completely, after being in that kind of a whirlwind."

That's an idea echoed by superfan MJ Santilli, owner of MJ's Big Blog, one of the Idol websites renowned for posting "spoiler" information on who has progressed in the show's secret auditions before results are televised.

As Idol teeters on the precipice of diminished audiences after six consecutive years as TV's highest-rated program, Santilli notes that we may not learn the full impact of the format changes until March, when the live shows begin and judges get no help from editing.

"They're at a crossroads here; their cultural relevance is slipping, and with a lot of these changes, they're trying to get back on the map," she said. "I'm probably more excited with this season than in quite a while. Whatever happens, it's going to be interesting."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at www. tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Watch it

American Idol returns for its 10th season at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on Fox, WTVT-Ch. 13.

Judging the 'Idol' judges

Randy Jackson

New
Idol identity: Part Simon,
Part Paula

Why? Sitting in star judge Simon Cowell's old "authority seat," Jackson will be the last to speak and the most experienced judging voice, forced to pare down the hipster jive and put his newbie colleagues' comments in perspective.

What's he saying? "You'll see a little more of an assertive dawg, a different side of the dawg, maybe a little bit more hair on the dawg, if you will … Fewer 'yo's.' "

Steven Tyler

Idol identity: The New Paula

Why? In early clips, Tyler's fondness for convoluted language and limited attention span have made him seem the most ditzy, an odd development from a guy who fronts one of the world's most powerful rock bands.

What's he saying? "Why did we do this? I'm not sure yet."

Jimmy Iovine

Idol
identity: All Simon

Why? As president of the new record company releasing the Idol winner's record, Iovine has to actually sell to the American public whoever tops the competition. And as the guy who discovered Eminem and produced U2, he has few problems speaking his mind.

What's he saying? "My role is to help make sure we find an original voice … They have to improve every week. And I believe in the past they weren't really getting the proper help to (achieve that)."

Jennifer Lopez

Idol
identity:
Part Randy, Part Paula

Why? As the biggest star currently on the panel, Lopez may have a tough time telling contestants who idolize her when they're terrible. Early clips reveal a direct but supportive approach that may not work with the show's more deluded auditioners and contestants.

What's she saying? "If we weren't crazy, we wouldn't be here."

'American Idol' stands at a crossroads 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 7:49pm]

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