How to Fix 'American Idol'

American Idol's juggernaut status is dwindling to such a degree that the production company that owns it is changing its name to distance itself from its once-great television property and vowing to tweak the show to restore it to its former glory. We have some ideas how.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

American Idol's juggernaut status is dwindling to such a degree that the production company that owns it, CKx (Content is King), is changing its name to distance itself from its once-great property. Though, CKx, now Core Media Group, is still working with Fox to tweak the show in the hopes of a more successful season twelve.

CKx/Core bought Idol producer 19 Entertainment back in 2005 when the show was a rich cultural property and things were looking sunny. Carrie Underwood won that year and would go on to become the show's top-selling discovery, giving the series a boost of the legitimacy it had been losing in the two post-Kelly seasons. So it made sense, then, to buy 19, which also owns So You Think You Can Dance and the UK Pop Idol. But now, seven long and weird years later, CKx doesn't want to be the Idol company anymore.

American Idol's ratings have plummeted; this season's numbers were down 30 percent from last year. And the show is suffering from a plague of what CKx/Core's president calls "W.G.W.G.’s" — White Guys With Guitars. Those milquetoast dudes have won the past five seasons of American Idol, and none have found terribly long-lasting success. (To be fair, Scotty McCreery didn't really play the guitar.) To cure this terrible affliction, Core hopes to work with Fox to change the voting system. It's not certain what the exact changes would be, but the intention is clear: Stop having the hormonal whims of teenage girls so dominatingly dictate how this thing goes down. Which is a big, important change to make, if it's remotely possible. But there are other things they could do, too.

While Idol's success hinges on a long build-up, one that gives contestants lots of star-making momentum, the beginning stretches could be trimmed. There is really no reason for, here in the second decade of the new millenium, a month-long lead-up of auditions episodes. The show made a good choice when, two or three seasons ago, it decided to devote more of its time to the good singers and less to the tragic messes and camera-hungry freakazoids. But still the sheer volume of these early audition episodes acts a repellant to anyone who might be idly thinking of taking up the season. People don't want to suffer through weeks of "Hi my name is" caterwauling, so they abandon the entire season. That's not good! It's best to not just jump right in with a handful of chosen contestants, a la The Voice and Duets, whose singers feel completely random and arbitrary in their out-of-nowhere-ness, but the uber prolonged Idol search might need some shortening at this point. Let's say two weeks of auditions episodes, maybe. Just the highlights. Well, a couple of lowlights, but mostly the good ones who we'll see later during Hollywood Week.

And hey, after Hollywood Week? Do more than a week's worth of semifinals. This season felt slow in the beginning and then all of a sudden rushed and perfunctory once the going got good — semifinals were barreled through in a week. Sure there's no real qualitative difference between semifinals and finals — they're both just kids singing and kids voting — but as a part of the process, a longer semifinals period is necessary. Don't spend a month groping us and then go straight to the sex, Idol! There are steps in between. Good, important steps that are worth spending time on. Basically the show needs to invert the pacing of the first half of its season. Shorter introductions, longer first drinks.

And maybe, well definitely, they need to be better about curating their lineups. The reason all these W.G.W.G.'s won? Because there were W.G.W.G.'s there. Sure there's a whole nonsense spirt of democracy to this thing — this is America's choice! — but it's not America's choice until a certain point. The producers need to be better about spotting people and selecting groups that will produce the results they want. We viewers of the show often gripe about the producers' obvious machinations, but that doesn't mean that an invisible hand shouldn't be guiding the season. It just needs to be smarter and, y'know, more invisible. Dumping a bunch of ballad-singing girls into the final 12 isn't going to insure that a girl wins. It's probably actually going to turn off the audience and make them vote for the W.G.W.G. standing next to all the wannabe Whitneys. So maybe the producers should avoid creating that juxtaposition. Of course there's no controlling the pheromone phreak-outs of teenage girls — the show's core voting bloc is going to vote for cute boys, this is just a fact — but many more and smarter steps could be taken while the producers still have a say that would help create a more balanced season with a more desired outcome. The show should hire some new talent spotters or something, people who aren't so easily bowled over by a cute boy playing piano or a skinny girl wailing out Mariah Carey. Think bigger, guys. Hell, think Rihanna.

So yes, CKx/Core is distancing itself from the show, but it's not abandoning it. Because it's not quite worth abandoning yet. The ratings are low only by American Idol standards. Relative to the rest of network television, it's still a big ol' hit. And of course there's that ever-tantalizing prospect that the next Kelly or Carrie is waiting just around the bend. That's the elusive promise of the show, the one that keeps us watching year after increasingly frustrating year. It's good that the producers are finally considering some overhaul. The format has been precious and protected for too long, to the show's detriment. It's time to evolve! We support any efforts in that direction. (Well, most efforts anyway. Don't give us magic swivel chairs next season, guys.)

We don't support, however, hologram Elvis. Yeah, apparently Core owns Elvis's ghost, basically, and they want to do a duets album like that Frank Sinatra one, and maybe, if the chicken bones scatter in the right way and the devil smiles on them, do a tour with the chosen artists singing next to Elvis's hologram. Hm. You know what? Maybe it's better that Idol dies a croaking death so this company can go bust and this terrible thing can never happen. Forget all we said, Idol! Don't change a thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.