Last year, “American Idol” Season 12 ended pretty much the way it began: in tears. It ickily kicked off with a tabloid-fueled Mariah Carey/Nicki Minaj feud that alienated much of the show’s conservative fanbase, and it wrapped months later with an astounding 20 percent ratings drop.
Then there was the failed-to-launch single and multiple album-release delays for winner Candice Glover; runner-up Kree Harrison’s unprecedented inability to secure her own record deal; sluggish ticket sales and canceled dates for the “American Idol Live!” concert tour; the demotion of original judge Randy Jackson; and the departures of Nicki, Mariah, Fox reality exec Mike Darnell, and executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick.
So now, as “Idol” returns for a hopefully less unlucky 13th season, Fox’s powers-that-be would no doubt like to erase all traces of Season 12. You know how “Dallas” once wrote off an entire season as Pam’s year-long bad dream? Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Idol” tried the same tactic on this week’s premiere, kicking off the episode with a benevolently beaming Bobby Ewing in the shower, reassuring wary viewers that Season 12 never really happened.
But Season 12 did happen. So how will Fox really undo the damage and lure viewers back to the show? “We didn’t want to do anything radical. The original format really works,” executive producer Trish Kinane explained at Fox’s Television Critics Association presentation this Monday. “[But] we went back and examined every single element of the show, from the talent search right through to the finale. It’s still absolutely ‘American Idol,’ but it’s a million tiny decisions and little refreshments that make a fresher whole.”
So here’s the plan:
1. Cut out the quarreling. No one enjoyed seeing those Real Housewives of Idol, Nicki and Mariah, side-eye each other across the judging table or threaten each other with Q-Tips last season. The tension was thicker than Ryan Seacrest’s copiously gelled hair, and it was no fun. But this season, returning judges Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban and new cast member Harry Connick Jr. are total besties, sharing an easy-breezy chemistry that was glaringly missing from last year’s disastrous panel. And there’s even a beautiful bromance brewing between Keith and Harry that rivals the one between “The Voice’s” Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. (Seriously, I don’t think they’ll let J.Lo sit in between them for long.) It’s all about good vibes this year, and that should make for good TV.
2. Bring in the new bosses. After last season’s mass executive exodus, the show has recruited “Swedish Idol” producer Per Blankens, MTV veterans Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager (producers of “VH1 Divas,” the CMT Music Awards, and the VMAs), and Fox Sports’ David Hill to “freshen things up.” Let’s see what these freshmakers can accomplish.
3. Make the show a very Harry situation. “Idol’s” new recruit, Harry Connick Jr., is tough (“I have to be honest — to send someone out of the room crying is a terrible feeling, but if it’s the right thing to say, I think you have to say it,” he’s explained), he’s wildly funny, and he’s genuinely smart, peppering his critiques with musical lessons about the pentatonic scale and whatnot. (“What’s wrong with challenging America?” he says — a question probably no one on “Idol” has ever thought to ask before.) Harry might turn out to be the best “Idol” judge since Simon Cowell. He may frequently joke about his relative lack of celebrity status, but really, “Idol” needs Harry more than Harry needs “Idol” right now.
4. Celebrate the guitar heroes. Season 12 was a bizarrely guitar-phobic season; in a transparent attempt to avoid crowning a sixth guy-with-guitar, the show’s powers-that-be all but banned six-string-slingers from the show. This left “Idol’s” core audience without a David Cook, a Phillip Phillips, or even a Lee DeWyze to root for, and that undoubtedly contributed to the show’s ratings dip. So producers have made “Idol” a guitar-friendly zone again…so friendly that, in an “Idol” first, hopefuls can even bring guitars into the audition room.
5. Bag the bad auditions. Perhaps taking a cue from NBC’s much more successful “The Voice,” which is all about good singing, “Idol” is refocusing on real talent this season. The premiere episode in fact shows only three rejects’ auditions in full, while doling out a whopping 45 golden tickets to actually talented vocalists. It looks like the days of William Hung and Bikini Girl are finally over.
6. Speed up the semifinals. “The Voice” has the Battle Rounds and Knockout Rounds. And now “Idol” has its own knuckle-biting, fast-tracking competitive phases. There’s “The Three-Yes Advantage,” a Hollywood Week twist in which all contestants who didn’t get three yesses at their first audition must sing in a sudden-death round. There’s the surprise “Hollywood or Home” round, in which on-the-fence contestants must sing one more time to convince the skeptical judges that they should stay. And finally, there’s “Rush Week,” a semifinals lightning round that quickly whittles down the top 30 to a top 13. Hopefully this’ll spice up the usually sluggish, purgatory-like section of the season between the auditions and the live rounds, which is when a lot of fairweather viewers tend to tune out. “We listened to the viewers, and they told us they’re fed up with the middle rounds…so we’ve shortened all of that down, condensed the middle round into one week,” Trish Kinane explained at the TCAs.
7. Reduce the results shows. As they say on the Interweb, ain’t nobody got time for that — “that” meaning sitting through 58 minutes of filler just to find out which contestant got the boot each week. So “Idol’s” results shows will now be just 30 minutes long: presumably the perfect length for the young, attention-challenged Netflix Generation that Fox hopes to attract. Again, this switch should help retain more casual viewers — of all ages.
8. Slap on some gimmicks. Season 13 will feature a new set, a new theme song, snazzy split-frame editing, a move to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the grand finale, Randy Jackson in a revamped in-house mentor role…and…gulp…THE CHAMBER, a claustrophobic steel holding pen seemingly designed with the specific purpose of freaking out contestants right before they audition. None of this will change “Idol” in any drastic way, but it’ll give the show a bit of a facelift.
9. Court the motherly love. Last month, the show invited a group of influential, Midwestern mommy bloggers (the women who make up “Idol’s” main demographic, and are likely to watch with their kids) to sit in during Hollywood Week and live-tweet the proceedings. These ladies, nicknamed the “Idol Tweethearts,” even got to eat lunch with hunky Harry! It was an obvious (and genius) grass-roots way of getting out the family-friendly message that it’s safe to come back to “Idol,” now that scary Nicki Minaj is gone…and it just might work.
10. Go into “Idol” rewind. “Idol” is still the only singing show with bragging rights when it comes to consistently launching platinum-selling, Grammy-winning stars, and it’s always done a good job of celebrating that legacy. But the show has gone into promotional overdrive in the lead-up to Season 13’s premiere, with “Idol Blitz” Twitter and Facebook Q&As with practically every alum — from Jordin Sparks to Chris Daughtry to Scotty McCreery — all to generate some nostalgia and remind fans of the show’s illustrious track record. Additionally, reigning champ Candice Glover will later get her own hour-long TV special, “Candice Glover: Up Close and Personal,” to celebrate the February release of her album and hopefully turn her into the next “Idol” success story.
So, will all this work? We’ll soon find out, when “American Idol” returns for its make-or-break two-night premiere this Wednesday. Dim the lights, and see you then.