Thoughts on Idol’s ending

This is the penultimate post that will appear on this website (I will liveblog the show’s finale tomorrow). I haven’t followed this season at all, but I would reckon that the finale will try to bring together the show’s history into some kind of retrospective.

Yesterday I read the story of how Idol began from the man at Fox who was mostly responsible for it. He goes by the moniker Masked Scheduler on Twitter, though for some time it’s known that he is Preston Beckman, former scheduler at Fox and NBC before that. The story is worth a read. Beckman, for instance, had to come up with the idea of a results show that was separate from the performance show due to the fact that the US has many time zones, but Britain has only one:

Since Idol was a competition show based on viewer voting they suddenly realized that the US has four time zones (five if you include Hawaii) and that Idol could not replicate the British formula of voting and then returning to the air later in the evening to report the results. Mike and I had to explain the difference [to the producers] between network and affiliate time and all the issues involved with that. We played around with different solutions such as excluding the West Coast from participating in the voting. Finally, I threw out the idea of a second show that would air the night following the voting.

At its peak, Fox had The Death Star as 3 full hours of primetime in its weekly schedule. I don’t envy the person who tries to fill it.

What most interested me, though, was the explanation of what I would call the end of the golden era, when Fox changed the format and brought in a fourth judge

For me Season 8 was the pivotal year for American Idol. The ratings were starting to decline so there was a feeling among the powers that be that we needed to shake things up…and we did. We eliminated the boy/girl round of 24 and went back to a final 36 where groups of 12 contestants performed over three weeks. We added a fourth judge in Kara Dioguardi thus telling the world Paula Abdul’s days were numbered. After years of resistance on our part we added the judge’s save to the show. We negotiated with the producers as to how deep into the show the save could be used and we made sure that they stuck to it. Finally, the auditions, which were the highest rated part of the show, were taking on a nasty tone and the ratings were reflecting it.

I think this was a mistake for many reasons. For one thing, the ecosystem that had come up around Idol depended on many things, and discussions of Paula’s lucidity were part of the fun. The producers ought to have done anything they could to keep the original judging panel for as long as possible. Dioguardi rarely added anything to the discussion. For instance, I once went through and tabulated how the judges rated the performances for each show on a scale from 1 (being bad) to 3 (being great). Looking only at season 9, see the table below

Randy Kara Paula Simon
Average score 2.095 2.183 2.449 1.929
Standard deviation 0.863 0.833 0.753 0.856

Paula gave the highest reviews overall (no surprise there), and a small standard deviation. But Kara, while overall giving more negative reviews, had a standard deviation lower than Simon or Randy. So why have her there? Paula at least was interesting. And don’t get me started on Ellen Degeneres, who gave an overall average 2.317 and standard deviation 0.779. Ellen was a combination of reviews that were as uniformly positive as Paula’s but without any other redeeming qualities (such as forgetting how many times the person had sung).

Changing judges was trivial, though, compared to possibly the biggest mistake Idol ever made: combining men and women into the same semifinal rounds. As I’ve said in this space many times (and is borne out by the data), women face a significant disadvantage overall, and tended to be eliminated at a high rate in semifinals. The superstars and semi-stars that have come out of Idol have all been women (save for Chris Daughtry). Jordin Sparks and Carry Underwood both took time to mature, and the semi-final round rules kept them in and gave them that opportunity. By eliminating this, they shifted the contest to one that was advantageous to one subgroup of people: people who were white, people who played guitars, and people who were male.

The judges’ save similarly took out part of the fun of the show, because it muted the effect of VoteForTheWorst, a site dedicated to keeping terrible singers in the contest for as long as possible.  The judges’ save would never have allowed  Gina Glocksen to be eliminated while Sanjaya stayed in Season 6.

I also missed the theme nights, which forced the contestants to perform out of their comfort zone. Almost nothing brought me the kind of glee I got from seeing a supposed hard-rock guy have to pick an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune and perform it hilariously on stage.

For his part, Beckman ascribes the main part of the decline to be due to a critical mistake:

Was there a moment when this all could have ended differently? Yes, it was when we delayed the launch of X Factor by a year after we planned the transition of Cowell from Idol to X Factor. That gave NBC the opening to introduce The Voice that was more akin to X Factor than to American Idol. This also kept Cowell off the air for over a year. That was not the plan. Once Idol was not THE singing competition but one of three well….

I think this analysis is probably at least partly true. But allowing Cowell to leave at all seems to be the main issue. The X-Factor was never popular, and was canceled after 3 seasons, but in the meantime the audience had two shows being run on Fox (though not concurrently). I don’t think that diversifying in a market that was likely already at saturation was a very good idea.

What seems clear to me is that the show could still do some good, but needs to go away for probably a decade. Idol for years has been drawing at least partially from cast-offs from other shows (like The Voice), and has seen a disturbing trend of recruiting contestants who already have released records and have a fan-base (Jax comes to mind as someone who had an organizational effort on Twitter from day 1). The thing that the producers of Idol perhaps forgot was that good singing was always only part of the equation: those of us who relished the show loved the portions where there was bad singing, we loved the stupid disco theme, we loved the judges bickering, and we even liked the injustice of the Worsters spoilers.

The ironic thing is that I can point out very memorable moments from even recent years (particularly season 12), but the totality of it is severely nerfed from Idol’s heyday. Every reality show eventually declines and dies, and Idol had a good long run. But it’s long past time to end it. Maybe if things lie fallow for a number of years, there will be a new generation of undiscovered singers who need such a show. As it stands, I think that field is infertile. Season 12 might have been a fitting end, if I had to choose.

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  • Sy Sussman

    Reuben: I discovered this site last season and enjoyed your analysis and, especially, the live blogs. I also was upset when Joey Cook was booted. Too bad you missed this season – the quality of the singers was an order of magnitude better than last year and La’Porsha has been one of the all-time great Idols. (Gotta go – I’m on the West Coast and about to watch the final show – don’t tell me who won).

    • reubengann

      Thanks. I really just didn’t think I had anything much intelligent to
      say about the show anymore. Last year was just so different, the show
      was unrecognizable. Maybe someday it will come back in its original