1. Life & Culture

How 'American Idol' lost the magic this year

From left, judges Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj. There are rumors all four will be let go; Jackson has already announced he’s leaving the show.
From left, judges Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj. There are rumors all four will be let go; Jackson has already announced he’s leaving the show.
Published May 11, 2013

What's most notable about news that Randy Jackson will leave American Idol after this season is how little it surprised anyone.

It's not just that TheWrap website had already reported all four judges on Fox's floundering singing competition might be fired, giving Jackson's move the air of jumping off a sinking ship before he was thrown overboard.

It's that American Idol has finally completed its slow descent from cultural and ratings phenomenon to well-watched TV show. Once capable of ending a rival series simply by airing in the same timeslot, a diminished Idol this year saw popular competitors The Voice and Duck Dynasty score ratings victories, as the wider showbiz world shrugged at the ongoing competition.

We're well past the days when Idol's approaching finale made front page headlines, so you might not realize the program will crown 2013's winner next week, over two shows airing at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

Despite the apathy, next week's showdown between soul diva Candice Glover and country crooner Kree Harrison marks the first time in five years a woman will win the competition.

How did we all get here? Here are five reasons Idol lost the magic this year:

It waited too long to shake up the contestant pool. This year, producers seem to ensure a female would win by selecting an inferior crop of guys. After years of criticism assailing the show's habit of choosing "cute white guys with guitars," not a single CWGWG made it into the crop of finalists viewers could vote on. But that also fractured the existing fanbase without convincing anybody new to sign up; a sign fans who long hoped Idol might change its ways had already given up.

NBC's The Voice proved charismatic, friendly judges trump fighting, bitter ones. The war between Idol judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey quickly moved from exciting sideshow to uncomfortable distraction. And it didn't help that Carey was so worried about looking callous that she was often mushy and unintelligible. Reportedly, Carey told producers she didn't want to look like the star of a bad reality TV show, but once cellphone video leaked of her clashes with Minaj in early auditions, that ship sailed. The edgy-yet-friendly banter among Voice judges Adam Levine and Blake Shelton ultimately has proven much more comforting and entertaining.

The music is too old and predictable; contestants too safe. Despite Minaj's efforts early on, Idol only embraced oddball contestants who made interesting television, not great music (frizzy-haired, melody-challenged Zoanette Johnson stands as Exhibit A). And theme nights based on music written before most every contestant was born — classic rock, Motown, Lennon/McCartney — belied every criticism from the judges to singers about staying contemporary.

Mentors are little more than celebrity accessories. Watching Harry Connick Jr. lamely joke his way through disappointing mentoring sessions with the singers this season, I wondered: Why did producers ever consider hiring this guy as a judge? And why don't they get stars who can actually up these singers' game? Like, you know, The Voice?

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It was time. After 13 years on top, viewers outside Idol's core fanbase seem ready for a new distraction, the same way eyeballs left CBS' Survivor and ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

Idol seems headed for one last desperate reinvention, likely to involve firing everyone except host Ryan Seacrest. But it's worth noting that, sometimes, TV shows just lose viewers because their time has come. And Idol has had an amazing run.


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