Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tinkering with Television: American Idol

There are lots of people offering up ideas on how to re-tool the aging albatross that is American Idol, so here I go, tossing one more log on the fire.

Bearing in mind I haven't actually seen more than 2 or 3 episodes in the last 3 or 4 seasons, I don't know if any of these changes have already been implemented, so if they have, good for you FOX, but I do believe these are untested ideas worth a shot, since you're going down the drain anyway.

1. Get rid of the WEEKS AND WEEKS of auditions. In fact, get rid of the auditions altogether. Start the show with the finalists. The audience has no say in this process, there's no point in making us sit through it. We trust you to make good choices, and anybody you cut that we might have loved is lost to us anyway. Sure there are some goofballs and sob stories; save it for a special episode or something, the same way The Bachelor(ette) franchise has their (Wo)Men Tell All episode right before the finale where they show bloopers and hash out things that came up over the course of the season that didn't necessarily get hashed out at the time of filming. Or you can use the oddball auditions as bumpers into breaks, as filler pieces (no!), or whatever, but no more full episodes of auditions. Please.

2. Viewers vote for who goes home. I know, I know, it's negative, we want to be positive and encouraging, and all that these days, but the time has come. Every season someone EVERYONE KNOWS IS TERRIBLE lasts longer than they should while a presumptive frontrunner SHOCKINGLY goes home. It's not shocking, it happens every time. If we could vote off the singer who is the worst that would guarantee more quality performances each week instead of getting to the top 6 and having all of your viewers wonder how that one person is still in the competition. It compromises the integrity of the competition. Let's gets this done.

3. Only two judges comments per contestant. We don't need all 3 (or 4 or however many there are now). They all seem to have the same anodyne critique each time, so why belabor it. Two "It was just okay for me, but it wasn't your best"s should suffice. This would free up more time for actual content. Speaking of which....

4. Let the contestants sing full songs. No more of this 1 verse, 1 chorus, 90 second nonsense. They want to belt out the high notes, but the audience can't feel the emotion because there is no time to build to the crescendo. It comes across as an affectation instead of a natural response to the music. And ultimately the winner is going to have to not just sing but perform full songs as a professional artist, and seeing if they have the presence and stamina and creativity to command the stage is just as important as their vocal ability.

Those first 4 suggestions are just nibbling around the edges of a moldy slab, though. This next one is the real game-changer and the one that could really revive the show.

5. Have a different set of finalists (and judges) for the Eastern time zone and the Pacific time zone so both audiences can have an actual live show with live voting instead of a dumb results show. 

WHAT? Okay, hear me out. Here's how this works.
First, we already got rid of the auditions, so the finalists are in place from day 1. Here's your audition show.  Week 1 & 2 functions as a draft. Week 1 there are 12 ladies, Week 2 there are 12 guys. Whichever ones get the highest percentage of the vote from a particular time zone goes to that show. The lowest 2 vote getters from each week get eliminated.
Okay, now we've got 10 singers to the east, 10 to the west. Now the competition essentially proceeds as normal, with one person getting voted off each week from the East show and the West show.
Here's how the show itself would be different, though. I'd pack the performances into the first half of the show (unless they take my advice and let them sing full songs) THEN announce the voting numbers for each all at once for fans to go and call, text, tweet, or vote from the American Idol app or on the website. You see, when the show was launched in 2001, there wasn't really an infrastructure in place to allow for real-time voting other than by phone. Now there are myriad ways of collecting votes, that can be tabulated just as fast as they can come in. This makes the show an event you have to tune in to every week because the voting is live and you don't know when to vote unless you're watching. This may disappoint DVR viewers, but the suspense of the show will make up for the not being able to participate angle, and besides more people will be watching live anyway. I'm sure there's a way to display some sort of on-screen vote tracker showing how everybody is doing. Instant gratification and a reasonable attempt at engaging the 2nd screen experience.

While the voting is going on, you can fill the time with all sorts of things: Those audition oddballs we discussed earlier, the lame medley/group numbers that go on during the results show now, perhaps an update/recap of what's happened last week on the other time zone's show, so this audience can have some cursory familiarity. The media will cover highlights from both shows anyway, so anyone who watched GMA, Today, E! News or whatever else will have a chance to see some of the best (and possibly worst) performances every week.

THEN once you've crowned an East show winner and a West show winner you can have a live Super Bowl of Singing finale on a Sunday evening (8p/5p). If the individual finales are on say Wednesday, May 6, then the following Wednesday, the 13th, can be a build-up week, hyping the show preparations for the finale; showing the training, staging, hometown visits, finale contestants getting together for the first time.
Then on Sunday they have the big show at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden or wherever, each finalists gets a concert style 3/4-song set with 20,000 fans in the house. It's a big event, and people tune in for events, even if they don't watch the show week-to-week. Live voting once again (make sure there is ample bandwidth, can't have crashes now!) and while the voting is going, have a Super-Bowl halftime show style party on stage, replete with big names, big bands, medleys, crossovers, a celebratory cornucopia of American pop music. Then announce the winner, rain down the confetti on the winner and rain down $1 million on me for giving you this genius idea.

One caveat: What about Alaska/Hawaii? Who cares. Let them watch a replay of one of the shows. I'm not letting them derail my beautiful, beautiful plan. Especially Alaska.