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The Fixing "Idol" Memo 2009

By admin Published: May 21, 2009
24: Day 7: Cast pictured L-R: Rhys Coiro, Janeane Garofalo, Jeffrey Nordling, Annie Wersching, Carlos Bernard, Kiefer Sutherland, James Morrison, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Colm Feore, Cherry Jones, Bob Gunton. 24: Day 7 is set to premiere with a special two-night, four-hour event Sunday, Jan. 11 and Monday, Jan. 12 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Muller FOX

Dear "American Idol":
Lots of people are saying this morning that "America got it wrong" in naming Kris Allen the winner of your annual competition. I don't agree. I think America did fine. But you, "Idol," made some bonehead moves, which I will explain after the jump. ...

First on the question of whether the vote was wrong, it wasn't. It never is. The purpose of "American Idol" is not to pick the best singer in America. It's to pick the most popular singer from a field chosen by the producers from those who audition. Since it is a popularity contest, the result can never be wrong, because the most popular singer wins. Simple as that. In the end, Kris Allen got more votes than Adam Lambert -- by a considerable margin, apparently, since there was no mention of any closeness when the results were discussed. Kris wins. Case closed. And I say that as someone who preferred Adam to Kris.

But that doesn't mean the show got it right this year. I think some major changes need to be made going into 2010. But let's start with the most obvious lesson learned in '09.

Keep the playing field level. Going back to at least Season 2, "American Idol" has shown a tilt toward certain contestants by giving them prime slots on the show and providing production values superior to those other contestants are getting. We all know that it happens. But this year, the tilt toward Adam Lambert was so thorough that it had to encourage some people to vote against him because they resented the favorable treatment he received. We can count the ways, from the huge production values to the show-closing moments to Simon's pleading with people to vote for Adam. I mean, I preferred Adam and still resented the Katy Perry cape with his name on it.

The judges' comments at the end of the Final 2 performance show were also galling, sending Kris on his way with a "good try" as if he had accomplished nothing that night. Wednesday's results show was a showcase for Adam, obviously designed before the votes were in. But the vote offered a different result. And even then, there was a perfunctory quality to the announcement of Kris's win Wednesday -- no round of praise from the judges after Kris won, for instance, because the judges had been so in the tank for Adam. Kris himself had a hard time believing he had won. So next time around, as compelling as one contestant may be, let's try to remember that you have to count the votes before you hand over the crown.

As for the judges ...

It's time for a judging purge. Adding a fourth judge should have offered more of a balance between Simon's terse and biting comments on one side, and the combination of Randy's cliche-strewing and Paula's incoherence on the other. But Kara ended up just increasing the inanity level at the desk, not to mention providing that horrible "No Boundaries" single. How about THAT artistry? In addition, four judges who were not held in check verbally sucked time away that could have gone to the contestants, and sent the show running overtime to the dismay of DVR users.

Tricks like having just two judges comment on a singer aren't fair. At minimum, the show should go back to three judges, and as long as one of those remaining is Simon, I'll be fine. Randy, Paula and Kara each drags the show down in his or her own special way. At best, the show drops the number of judges and brings in someone else who can offer insight in complete sentences and feels no compulsion to get up and dance every time someone she loves is performing. But that's not the only judging-related issue I have.

Fix the judges' save. The idea was interesting enough: Giving the judges a chance to overrule America. The execution was awful, forcing the contestants to sing again while the judges deliberated, and letting something akin to mob rule be part of the process, with the audience and Paula/Kara badgering Simon on the air about who should be saved.

I'd keep the save, and even extend it as far as top three; imagine a Top 3 show like this year, only the judges save Gokey to create a three-man playoff on the season finale. But I'd make the deliberations a more private process. The judges know after the Tuesday performances whom they would save and whom they would not; that last, desperate performance shouldn't change it. So as soon as the ousted contestant is announced, the judges can say whether they'd save him/her or not. Not only is it less sadistic to the contestant and less chaotic on the air, it saves time. Because, let's face it ...

The show needs to solve its time-management problems. Overruns were frequent and awful this year, going back to when Anoop Desai was named the 13th finalist and DVRs set to the scheduled running time had clicked off. Since "Idol" routinely builds in extra time, ending several minutes after the hour, it should be able to get done in the alloted period. "Dancing With the Stars," for one, keeps the train running. A judges purge and revamping the judges' save would help some, and maybe even put in time for more songs.But the show also has to be willing to tell the judges, especially Paula, to wrap up their comments quickly. And it has to watch out for the ceremonial stuff, like the early move of having the judges enter through the stage; it's filler in a show that's overfilled as it is.

Release vote totals. You want to make things more interesting? Announce the votes each contestant received each week. Sure, it will make some contestants look like guaranteed losers. But it will mobilize the base for other contestants fearing that their guy is going to lose, and will do so in a way that goes beyond just being in the bottom two or three. It may also change the way the contestants view the competition. Imagine how Adam might have approach the Top 2 show if he had known he was significantly behind in the voting the previous week; he might have given a more passionate performance which, even if it did not lead to his winning, would have made the show more dramatic. And it's not as if "Idol" keeps the votes a complete secret; when the gap between a couple of contestants is very small, it will mention that, and it does suggest voter enthusiasm by mentioning the total overall vote. So why not go to a leaderboard? I don't like the coyness, either here or on "Dancing With the Stars," but at least "DWTS" gives you judges' scores so you have one element of the voting. So let's open up the ballot boxes.

And finally ...

Comedy ends in the Hollywood round. One of the worst parts of the "Idol" finale was the presentation of the "Golden Idol" awards. It reminded us of the horrors of Nick Mitchell and Tatiana Del Toro, and did so in a really unfunny way; the Tatiana bit seemed as if it would never end. I know there's a part of the audience that wants to see the horrible singers, but by the time we get to the Top 36, people should not be kept around because they are amusing. It distracts from the people who are serious about the competition, and it takes away slots that might have gone to performers who had a real chance to win. As much as some viewers loved Nick's off-the-charts "And I Am Telling You" during the season, not least because he completely hijacked the show for those minutes, it was in the long term a sideshow.

Like my buddy Alan Sepinwall, I went back and looked at what I said about Kris in the early going, and didn't even consider him a factor. But he emerged over the course of the competition, and there may have been someone else who would have done as well -- if he/she hadn't been bumped for Nick or Tatiana.

There may be other changes needed as well. I keep thinking something has to be done about the weekly song categories, the grind of country night, disco night, songs from when you were born. Not sure what, but it needs freshening in some way. Still, everything I have talked about above should be a major cause for concern, and the show knows at least some of it. Adam, for all its efforts, lost. A top Fox exec recently declined to address a question about the judging setup next year. So let's try to fix it.

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