tampabay.com

Is 'Idol' losing its worshipers?

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published May 22, 2007


Since the best singer has been kicked off American Idol, there's a question more pressing than whether Jordin or Blake takes home the top prize on Wednesday:

Is this the moment TV's favorite talent competition hits the skids?

Of course, some fans asked that question last year, when rocker Chris Daughtry was sent home three weeks shy of victory.

Some of us remember back to Idol's first season in 2002, when the fourth-place finish of vocal powerhouse Tamyra Gray, who is black, brought charges that the competition was not picking the best singer and might even be racist.

But the evidence of Idol's decline this year is tough to ignore. Recent episodes have garnered the lowest ratings of the season - a still-impressive 23-million people, but down from an average 30-million last year - with a bump last week when front-runner Melinda Doolittle was ejected.

Critics including me have complained that the 2007 contestants were weak. Standouts such as Doolittle, Jordin Sparks, Blake Lewis and LaKisha Jones - the top four finishers - dominated from the beginning.

Idol's problems coalesced in Sanjaya Malakar, both the show's biggest asset and worst problem. The vocally challenged sprite's continued success kept the public buzzing, even as he ripped apart the thin contention that Idol is a serious singing competition.

As Sparks and Lewis face off tonight, it's hard to escape the feeling that Idol is a roller-coaster passing its biggest peak as a cultural phenomenon, headed for decline into just another hit show.

"There's so much of the show out there, you can't turn around without reading or seeing a story about American Idol and how wonderful it is," said Andy Dehnart, creator of the reality TV-focused Web site RealityBlurred.com. "And especially when the TV show that's on doesn't seem to be mirroring the coverage, that's a problem."

As Doolittle learned the hard way, great vocals take contestants only so far. Building an emotional connection with the audience, making them care about you the way they cared about the coolest kids in school, is the real key.

"One of the inherent properties of reality TV is that the people who don't deserve to win are often the most interesting," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "If we judge American Idol by asking, 'Is the show finding the best musical voices of their generation?' the answer is absolutely not."

Even longtime Idol fans admit this year's grab bag of pop star clones, blandly proficient vocalists and Sanjaya just didn't move people enough.

"They haven't really had a group of talented individuals that have a uniqueness about them," said Christa Watson, a Wesley Chapel resident who is so close to Sparks' family that she's considered the 17-year-old Idol finalist's honorary aunt. "This year, until you got to the top six, it was almost predictable."

Another long-standing argument among Idol fans and critics is whether the show's lackluster roster reflects the state of pop music these days, or encourages it.

On the plus side, among the show's alumni are platinum-selling recording artists, Broadway stars, Grammy-winning singers and an Oscar winner.

But only two of the series' five previous winners have maintained Idol-level performing careers (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood), with other high achievers such as Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson outperforming those who beat them in their competitions.

Here are some ways Idol could preserve its status as a TV phenomenon.

ACTIVELY RECRUIT CONTESTANTS. When CBS's Survivor found that open casting calls kept attracting the same kind of people, they recruited a more diverse group that helped revitalize the program.

Idol expands its open casting calls every year, yet culls increasingly blander lineups. Sparks was even rejected from the Los Angeles auditions (she won a contest that flew her to Seattle for another try), and Doolittle only auditioned because she was accompanying a friend. Time to take the initiative and find new voices.

UPGRADE THE CELEBRITY COACHES. NOW. Every celebrity mentor who performed on Idol this year sounded markedly worse than the contestants themselves. And some - say, balding, paunchy disco icon Barry Gibb - have little connection to the current pop scene.

It's time for coaches who are better performers and teachers. Who wouldn't tune in to see Prince really put these kids through some changes?

COMBINE JUDGES' VOTES WITH THE PUBLIC'S. One of the biggest post-Idol problems for winners such as Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks is that their musical styles are not the most popular genres, limiting their chances to live up to the Idol title. More guidance is needed from the presumed industry experts.

GET PAULA BACK ON THE CRAZY TRAIN, OR GET HER GONE. It sounds awful to say, but since Paula Abdul has toned down her nonsensical asides and oddball behavior, she has become a platitude-spouting bore.

STOP PADDING THE SHOWS. The trade magazine Variety noted last week that ratings for Wednesday Idol editions are far higher than for Tuesday; nearly a third of last Wednesday's audience just tuned in for the ejection episode and hadn't watched the competition on Tuesday.

Time to stop filling out episodes. Cut the results show back to a half-hour and don't even think about interrupting the competition for a week of charity fundraising.

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