American Idol Format Not Idling
You know the old saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, Fox has tossed out the adage when it comes to the new season of American Idol.
The show has been a ratings stalwart, and a yearly must-see, water-cooler pop-culture event, for Fox through three seasons. But network and series execs are aiming to keep the show's number one status and draw back finale viewers, who watched in lower numbers last season (28.8 million finale viewers last season compared to 38.1 million for season two's Ruben vs. Clay showdown). And that means a few tweaks to the show's format.
"I think [American Idol] has the potential to be one of these very long-running franchises," executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz told the Associated Press. "These things do exist. They don't come along very often but I think [AI] could be one of them."
Among the major adjustments for the show's fourth season, which premieres Tuesday (8 p.m. ET/PT) on Fox:
The age limit for contestants has been raised from 26 to 28 in hopes of luring a few more seasoned performers among the aspiring superstars.
The early audition rounds, where viewers get a sneak peek at the eventual winners as well as those William Hung
-like rejects, lasted for two weeks in seasons past, but, thanks to the popularity of the less-than-talented contestants, will be expanded to three weeks worth of episodes for season four.
Instead of the confusing semifinalist configuration of four groups of eight contestants battling for the final 12 spots, the semifinalist pool will be broken into 24 competitors, and an even mix of 12 males and 12 females. "We could create a group of girl finalists and boy finalists without feeling we left anybody who was good aside," Frot-Coutaz said. The 24 contestants will perform in alternating groups--all 12 guys one night, all 12 females the next--until a dozen finalists is selected. Live performances and elimination episodes begin Feb. 15.
Through the middle of March, the show will air three times a week, then switch back to twice-weekly airings until the two-night finale on May 24 and 25.
"We try very hard every year to bring new things to the show without changing the formula, because the formula works, so it's about tweaking things at the margin and improving it where there's room for improvement," Frot-Coutaz told MTV.com.
Ironically, the changes don't involve the aspects of the show that have drawn the most criticism from fans.
The lack of a minimum age for contestants, which has led to a torrent of trilling teen wannabes? No change there, despite the fact that last season's crop of top 12 finalists included six contestants who were still in their teens. As many viewers and critics point out, it's hard to take seriously the proclamation of a 16-year-old that she has been working her whole life to become a star.
And that maddening, underperforming phone voting system, which has left many a viewer stuck in redial mode when it comes time to choose the week's top performers? Nope, no change there either, despite a minor fury last season when anti-fans of Hawaiian finalist Jasmine Trias charged that the teen was continuing to score scads of votes only because the time difference gave voters in her home state the advantage of calling in their votes on a less hectic, obstructed phone system, after the rest of the country had already made their picks.
"Nothing's ever perfect, but we have the best possible system out there," Frot-Coutaz said.
Also unchanged in the new season: anchorman Ryan Seacrest, who will continue to fly solo since dumping season one's dead-weight cohost Brian Dunkleman, and the appearances by celebrity guest judges, including LL Cool J, Brandy, KISS' Gene Simmons, lite-rock purveyor Kenny Loggins and Sugar Ray rocker turned tabloid-TV host Mark McGrath during the early audition rounds in season four. Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney
are said to be atop the producers' wish list for future guest spots.
Speaking of judges, the regular triumvirate of appraisers is also back, with Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and an extra-snarky Simon Cowell ready to dash the dreams of many would-be Clay Aikens and Kelly Clarksons, the most successful male and female AI alumni.
In fact, the stupefying success of last year's most woeful wannabe, the ubiquitous William Hung, has led to a rash of even more underqualified contestants, and therefore even more caustic criticism from Mr. Cowell.
After yet another hapless performer belts out his audition number in the early rounds of season four, Simon simply shakes his head and tells the poor dude that he's made Cowell dislike music altogether.