Skip to main content

This Is ‘American Idol'

Some people in TV believe some people at Fox have special powers for reading the weather — and that they actually program to it months in advance. One of those believers reminded me of this theory when I explained why I think American Idol is going to beat the pants off ratings projections for its 10th season, currently underway.

The exec was joking, of course, but I think it may actually be true.

Fox and Idol’s producers by all accounts had two big issues to address this season: They had to nail the recasting of the judges panel sans Simon and they had to get some better singers in there.

Given those factors, the sheer age of the show and the aging of its core audience, expectations industrywide have been that the demo will degrade quite a bit more than the 9-ish% year-to-year dips it’s been posting in recent seasons. Idol ratings peaked in season five (with a 12.6 rating in the 18 to 49 demo and nearly 31 million total viewers) — unusual in itself, as most shows start showing their age by then. If Idol ratings continue to fall 9-10% season-to-season, it will very likely remain the biggest show on TV for many years to come.

However, with one audition show left to air Feb. 9, I’ve seen enough promise in the season 10 reboot to predict the ratings will be down less than that this year – not more. In fact, I would not be surprised if season 10 wraps up with Idol having a full-blown ratings renaissance. Here’s why: American Idol Season 10 has all the factors going for it that are so important in determining its own winners, coincidentally many of the same ingredients needed for the most successful TV: Star-power, confidence, exposure, execution, timing, the element of surprise and the growth that comes with the experience of doing the show for awhile. More specifically…

The Talent Pool: It’s totally subjective, of course, but I submit the new Idol is two for two on its judges and contestants assignment. They got the judges panel right (more on that momentarily) and in each audition episode so far, there was at least one performer featured that I would like to see again. By contrast, watching the auditions last year, I was as bored and itching to move on as Simon Cowell appeared to be.

Idol’s Supreme Court: I dare say this is actually the best judges panel Idol has had yet. I don’t miss Simon Cowell — on this show, this season — one bit. In recent seasons, he’s come across disengaged. Everyone else with a judge’s seat read entirely unsure whether they fit, what they should do or whether they would be asked back — and it showed. Viewers sniff fear as well as dogs do and it makes for TV that, well, kinda stinks.

Speaking of Dawgs, Randy Jackson works this season, probably his best ever. His role is clear: He is the consistent thread through to the first judges panel for this show. He has a track record, he knows how this show works, he’s seen real stars come out of this show firsthand and he’s seen when the show has erred.

On the other hand, Jennifer Lopez has quickly emerged as the Alpha Dawg, with the utterly uninhibited Steven Tyler and Randy apparently taking their tonal cues from her. Seated in the middle, Lopez often snaps up the stage with just a little lean forward. Her tone is one of a firm, parental authority, a “J. Lo knows best” vibe. No whiff of nasty, but with all the success to back her opinion up. While the three don’t always agree, they have fun ways of expressing their take without shredding anyone. And so, with a quick, sequined swoosh, mean judging on Idol is suddenly passe. And I find myself with a thought that never crossed my mind in all the years and albums and movies J.Lo’s logged: I like Jennifer Lopez.

As much as the deployment of Ben Grossman’s “Mary Hart Rule” might help leverage Lopez’s appeal even more, from the basic, girly point of view, it’s just fun to see what she’s done next with her hair/makeup/spectacular outfits. She always, always looks fabulous.

On the can’t-wait-for-what’s-next point, Tyler’s unpredictability provides in droves. Will he burst into song? Will he leer just a little too long? Can he make his face look any weirder?

Simply put: They’re a confident crew. Lopez and Tyler are huge stars for a reason — they have the It factor. You can see when contestants walk in to the panel starstruck. Randy’s gotten himself established as well.

Let’s not forget that host Ryan Seacrest’s star, too, has also grown to his brightest yet. His moments with the contestants so far have never been better. “Oh, he’s with you?!” he says in response to the young contestant who blazes out from the judges, golden ticket in hand and lays a huge, he’s-my-boyfriend smooch on the older gent waiting with her mom who looked like he was definitely her dad.”Pitch” perfect.

Platinum Lining in The Clouds: What’s more, Idol had an unanticipated boost (that is, unless Fox execs really do read the weather) in the severe snowstorms last week that kept millions of American viewers indoors just as the judges were jelling. And it yielded at least one positive statistical sign, too: On Feb. 2, total viewership was up 2% from its equivalent telecast last year to 24.9 million people.

I am not a personal fan of the taped vignettes recounting the inspiring stories of the contestants, but I get why they’re there — the forces behind the scenes of Idol have analyzed the content of this show and know what to do to appeal to the various constituencies of a broad hit. They’ve fine-tuned the balance between the great singers and the bad, the delusionals and the freaks. They know just how many heart strings to pull and how much outrageousness to reveal.

As the season progresses, the ratings will begin to be nearly impossible to compare to last year, since Idol started a week earlier last year, the competition rounds are being conducted differently and the show moved to Wednesday and Thursday, from Tuesday and Wednesday.

So this is not to say I expect every episode of this season to out-rate last season or be down less than 9% every single time. Not at all. And Idol always has its ratings ups and downs throughout the season.

It is to say: “This is American Idol.” And in a season when every expectation was low, it’s hitting every high note.