The Great 'American Idol' Judge Swap Wouldn't Have Worked Anyway

Sure, there would have been a little ratings spike had the dramatic coup worked, if Jennifer Lopez had really returned to replace Mariah Carey. But judges on these competition shows are silly distractions — the real problem is Idol

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Last night The Hollywood Reporter revealed a dramatic tale of intrigue that recently played out behind the scenes of American Idol. It seems that the show's producers, understandably unhappy with the current season's poor and worsening ratings, tried to orchestrate a daring coup against much-touted and then much-criticized judge Mariah Carey. The plan was to swap out Carey for past judge Jennifer Lopez, a very bold thing to do midseason. But, alas, it was not meant to be.

Getting wind of the alleged plot, which everyone involved denies ever happened, Carey's camp apparently threatened Idol with litigation, which made them back off the idea. But they're still trying to get Lopez back for an appearance on the season finale next month, which ought to do... not much of anything for ratings. Really, nothing about this plan would have helped the show. Oh, sure, there would have been a little spike when people tuned in to see Carey fully ousted for the return of the Lopez, but that's it. The producers are crazy if they think that the judges are the problem with the show this season, or that the right judges could slow — or somehow reverse — American Idol's inevitable decline. I mean, ultimately, who cares about the judges?

Sure, there are some interesting nuances — Nicki Minaj is feisty and often on point, Carey is sweet and a little scattered, Keith Urban has strange hair — but ultimately the judge dynamic is not why people were tuning in to the show. Well, OK, maybe that's why people were tuning for the fresh novelty of Simon Cowell being such a jerk all the time, but that was ten years ago. At this point everyone has accepted the fact that the judges just aren't that exciting. A trick like the judges' save—to give them some agency once the vote is turned over to the audience—has only worked well once or twice since introduced on Idol. Nah, people are wise to the reality that judges on these competition shows are silly distractions, mostly. I mean, Britney Spears, the Britney Spears, couldn't get anyone to tune into The X Factor. People blamed a lack of craziness, but I think the issue is bigger than that. The real problem is that reputation means everything.

Phillip Phillips, Scotty McCreery, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, David Cook. Those are the last five Idol winners. Want to go further back? Jordin Sparks, Taylor Hicks. Taylor Hicks won seven years ago! That's seven years of dud winners, and that is the real problem. When Kelly won all those years ago, it was enough to keep interest in the show high even though the next two seasons crowned Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino, talented singers but not people who made it terribly far in the fame world. But then, phew, came Carrie Underwood, giving the show another jolt of energy. It's a jolt that's never come back. That's the problem with the show! The most obvious thing! If contestants are memorable and do really well post-Idol, people will come back to the show wanting to see who else will make it big. But it's been seven years of relative nobodies, and that seems like a terminal illness. Because of course this stuff is all related; it's Paula Abdul eating her own tail: the show is popular, its winners become popular, more people watch the show, and so and so on. But when they got off that rhythm for too long, things sputtered and stalled. And I think that's fatal.

So the producers can try to shake up the judging panel all they want, but I don't think it's going to help any. I mean, look at this Idol season of dud contestants. All duds across the board. They really wanted a girl to win this year, so they stacked the boys side with boring guys and then... stacked the girls side with boring girls. Their thinking being, it would seem, that popular girl winners, namely Carrie and Kelly, were sort of generic belters when they first started. So why not recreate that? They tried funky girls and it didn't work, right? So the viewers are doomed on both sides. Sure, this season someone like Candice has emerged as a powerful singer, but it's not really enough. There's a star presence lacking in everyone, here in dreary season twelve, that no Lopez upset can cover up. If Idol wants to save itself it needs to really find the best people in the land. And then, OK, they can worry about judges. But, really, no matter what they do, I think it's just the way of things that the Idol days will soon be over. All good things come to an end. Maybe it's time Fox resigned itself to that inevitability.

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