Thoughts on American Idol

I got suckered into American Idol via my wallyball friends. During the season, they’d want to discuss the show at our Thursday night dinners, so eventually I decided to try it so I could see what they were talking about—and got hooked.  I got into the online reviews and news — especially mjsbigblog and Michael Slezak’s recaps and videos, first for, and now Slezak’s recaps and weekly videos can be hilarious, and his interviews with eliminated contestants are really good. He’s an Idol geek of the first order, and his interviews are in-depth and detailed, and unlike anybody else’s.

I started watching at the tail end of season 6, watched the from about Top 11 week of season 7, then watched all of season’s 8, 9, 10 and 11. I skipped season 12, both because I felt the show was a time sink, and because I couldn’t stand the judges. I came back to it this year, because Paul and Kris were still watching it and wanting to discuss it, and because the judges seemed more palatable.

For me, the best part of the Idol cycle are the live shows. The auditions kind of leave me cold—I don’t like the crazies, and a cappella singing is generally kind of lacking for me. Hollywood week is where you’re first apt to actually hear some good performances, but there’s too much drama there for my taste. Ideally, you have a stretch of the season where you’ve still got most of the contestants, but you’ve gotten rid of the worst singers. In a good season that happens around Top 7 or 8. In the season just concluded, that happened around week 4.

Ratings have been down this, year, and the audience is skewing older. Basically, it sounds like they’ve lost the younger part of the audience, while many older fans have stayed with the show. Fox has said they’re going to “streamline” the show for next year, and I thought I’d put in my 2 cents.

The Judges

Overall, I’ve been quite pleased with the judge’s panel this year. Especially at the beginning of the year, they’ve been giving honest, concrete, actionable feedback. Harry Connick has been especially good —he’s honest and direct like Simon Cowell, without the nastiness. I’m happy to see that they’re coming back.

The one thing I feel they need to watch out for is confirmation bias. Slezak seems to feel that the judges have an agenda to get rid of certain contestants; I think it’s more a matter of their overall opinions of the contestants biasing their judgment of an individual performance. In the early part of the season, they’re fine, but once they’ve arrived at a conclusion of who the winner will be, it colors their judgement. Jennifer Lopez is particularly prone to this.

The Music

I think part of the reason has lost so much of their younger audience is that up to this year, the music has gotten really old. Themes have typically been “Motown Week”, “Beatles Week”, “Music of Fleetwood Mac”, “Country Week” and other themes that feature music from when the producers were young.  This music is all very old for the audience they want to reach. This year, they’ve had broader themes, but the damage may have been done. They need to feature more current music.


Over the past few seasons, the shows have gotten gotten really padded, as Fox has insisted in two hour performance shows throughout the season. They’ve already said  they’re cutting back the number of hours, but I’m concerned they’ll do it the wrong way. From what I’ve read, they’re talking about one two hour performance show during the live shows; I don’t know how they’ll handle eliminations. I think they should keep the half hour results show — they do move along pretty well— and let the performance shows contract to a length just long enough to allow for performances and a short critique from the judges, without the extra claptrap. The shows should move fast, and they shouldn’t be a time sink. There shouldn’t be much that you want to zip past when watching on a DVR.

For the end of the season shows, I would suggest going to fuller versions of the songs, rather than cutting them down to 90 seconds or two minutes or whatever it is.


The focus of the shows needs to be the contestants and the performances. I really feel they’ve lost this focus. There are too many distractions — too much computer graphics going on all around them, too many swoopy camera moves, too many shots of audience members waving their hands, too much silliness from the judges. The performers do need the energy from the audience, but I feel the audience is over-warmed up, too ready to respond to anything.

Get Rid of the Gratuitous Cruelty

American Idol is inherently a cruel show. Each week, someone goes home. But this year… I felt they were piling on in places. At the beginning of Hollywood week, they had a sing-off for contestants who hadn’t gotten a three votes for their tickets. Good idea, lousy execution. What they did was shovel the people who sang into buses — one went to the hotel, one went back to the airport. I felt that was disrespectful; I think the contestants were owed the courtesy of being told to their faces that they were eliminated.

At the beginning of the live shows, they had 30 kids warmed up and waiting to sing; but only allowed 20 to perform on the show. They brought the other 10 out for no reason. They should have either let them perform, or cut them earlier.

Finally, at Top 5 week, there was “the twist”, where if all agreed there would be no elimination that week, but two the next. Either way they voted, they risked either looking like a fool or a backstabber; none of the contestants appreciated it. Supposedly, all these machinations add “drama” to the show; what they really do is make for really uncomfortable moments  where it’s not fun to watch at all.

The Contestants

In the end, Idol depends on its contestants, and this year, they were not great. Some were poor technically — you had a guy finishing sixth who couldn’t sing in tune; others just had trouble connecting with the audience. It’s hard to say if the kids they rejected would have done better, but contestant choice is as important for the show as song choice is for contestants. We also need to be more invested in the contestants. I don’t miss the sob stories one bit, but you really need the audience to be rooting for one or more of the contestants early on. It might be worthwhile to return to a semi-final format that allows the audience to get to know the contestants sooner, while still making larger cuts.

I think Fox is getting realistic with American Idol. They realize it’s not ever going to be the ratings monster it once was; but they do feel that it can continue at a more modest level indefinitely, which I think is probably correct. There’s no reason, though, not to make it the best show it can be.