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'Idol' Season 11 Preview: Stuck in the Middle
How 'American Idol' can regain its edge in a truly
By Ken Barnes Special to MSN TV
Last season, the challenge for "American
Idol" was to reinvent itself without mainspring Simon Cowell. Having accomplished this
not-inconsiderable feat -- numerically if not aesthetically -- it goes up
against this year's challenge: a truly competitive landscape.
Whether by design or by accident, "The
Voice" and "X
Factor" executed a perfect flanking maneuver. "The Voice," with its
mentor/team structure, was a nurturing love-fest that outstripped even the
warm-and-fuzziest supportive efforts of the "Idol" judges. "The X Factor," with
a similarly competitive mentor/team structure, provided a new home for the
snarkiness and candor that made "Idol" a phenomenon in the first place -- thanks
to Cowell, the original Sultan of Snide, and surprisingly testy fellow judge L.A. Reid.
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"Idol" finds itself stuck in the middle: Without radically changing its
now-classic format, it can't get much cuddlier, and its current judges don't
have a prayer of competing in a battle of wits with Cowell and Reid on "X
Factor." "Idol" is also hamstrung by its age limits: Its lower limit of 15
prevents meltdowns like Rachel Crow and Drew eliminations on "X Factor." But cringe-worthy
as those sob-spectaculars were, they may have driven more eyeballs to the
program. And the upper cutoff of 28 on "Idol" may preserve a certain bouncy
youthful tone, but it also costs the show potential older-audience appeal and,
more important, talented and likable singers such as Josh Krajcik ("X Factor")
and Javier Colon ("The Voice").
Still, with its first average audience increase in five years under its belt,
OG status and substantial ratings superiority, "Idol" has a plenty of strengths
as it launches its 11th season Wednesday, Jan. 18, on FOX. But it seems as if
the show is set to coast on last year's rebound, which was more attributable to
a vastly stronger talent lineup than any procedural or personnel changes.
Reports from the recent TV critics winter press tour depicted the producers and
judges essentially signaling status quo all the way, spending more time sniping complacently at the competition than
announcing new wrinkles.
That approach sounds like a ticket to a quick ratings drop. The show may have
regained some ratings ground (though falling far short of its 2006 30-million
viewership average), but reviewing last season, it's clear there are still key
issues to be addressed:
Contestants: After 2010's disastrous season of Lee DeWyze (easily the show's least-gifted winner,
and already dropped from his first-prize record deal), "Idol" did a remarkable
job of upgrading the talent, resulting in a 10th season with perhaps the deepest
lineup of creditable singers in its history. (Seven of the top nine have signed
major-label recording contracts.) Yet both "X Factor" and "The Voice" unearthed
equally talented rosters in their first seasons, putting increased
pressure on "Idol" to find exceptional performers. Audience expectations are
much higher now, and there's no place for the amateurish Tim Urbans and Sanjaya Malakars who sucked up so much valuable
airtime and alienated so many viewers in the past.
Mentors: It's all about mentors at the moment. "The Voice,"
with four star coaches returning, announced a whole slew of assistant mentors,
taking shots in the process at both "Idol" (by hiring inaugural "AI" winner Kelly Clarkson) and "X Factor" (countering L.A.
Reid's judicial appointment by bringing his fabled musical partner, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, on board). "Idol" --
though it can't and shouldn't mimic the blurry judge/coach relationships of its
competitors -- needs to build on the more effective pro tips provided by Jimmy Iovine (at times the lone voice of candor on
"Idol") and crew last season. Expect a steady stream of superstar guest mentors.
Host: It's Ryan Seacrest's last contracted season, and while
it shouldn't be an issue this year (unless he's distracted by upcoming
decision-making), it's a key future consideration. It's easy to underestimate
the importance of Ryan's seamless emcee skills (though a season of bumptiously
clueless Steve Jones on "X Factor" sure makes Ryan -- and
even blandorama Carson Daly on "The Voice" -- look good). Still,
if "Idol" could replace Simon, it can find a new Ryan if Seacrest decides to go